erik lundegaard

Monday March 31, 2014

SLIDESHOW: It's Opening Day 2014! And Here are Your Active Career Leaders


  • SLIDESHOW: Opening Day! After a long winter. Less long here in Seattle but we'll make up for it with our usual soggy spring and soggy brand of baseball—despite the acquisition of Robinson Cano in a $240 million, 10-year boondoggle of a deal. No, enough of that. It's Opening Day and the M's are tied for first. So is your team (unless your team is in the NL West). A few years ago, I celebrated Opening Day by looking up the active career leaders in various categories. I wanted to see who was rising, who was falling, who had retired. It's become a tradition. So let's go. Active career leader in batting average. Any guesses? 

  • BATTING AVERAGE: Once upon a time, batting average was the be-all end-all stat; now it's disregarded if not maligned. But it still means something. With a minimum 3,000 plate appearances (as with all these batting categories), the active leader is Joe Mauer with a .323 mark, followed closely by Albert Pujols (.321), Miguel Cabrera (.320) and Ichiro (.318). In recent years, Mauer's remained steady, both Pujols and Ichiro have dropped like rocks, while Miggy rises. Mauer's .323 is 44th all-time. One assumes he won't get much higher. So what about OBP? Mauer again? Albert maybe?

  • ON-BASE PERCENTAGE: Nope. It's Joltin' Joey Votto (.419) and it's not close. Pujols is second (.409), then Mauer (.404) and Miggy (.399). I never would've guessed fifth place: Shin-Soo Choo at .389. Votto's .419 is 18th all-time, and it's rising. He's got a .450 mark in the last two years. You know what the means in Cincinnati? Complaints that he walks too much. Next up, slugging percentage and OPS ...

  • SLUGGING PERCENTAGE, OPS: Yep. Pujols is way out in front in Slugging. In fact, he, Cabrera (.567), Braun (.564) and A-Rod (.558) are the only active players above .550, and he's nearly at .600: .598. Actually: .5988, so really .599. (All of these numbers are courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, where the stats are good and the ads are shitty.) Pujols', of course, used to be in the rarefied air above .600, with the Ruths, Gehrigs and Greenbergs, but he's struggled a bit the last two years. He's still 7th all-time. He's also the active leader in OPS with a 1.008 mark. That's 8th all-time. Quick quiz: Who's ahead of him in OPS and not slugging? Quick answer: Rogers Hornsby. Now let's start the counting categories. This is an easy one. What active player is leading in games played, at-bats, and hits?

  • GAMES, AT-BATS, HITS: For another year, it'll be this guy. Jeter's played in 2,602 games (37th all-time), has 10,614 at-bats (15th all-time), and has 3,316 hits (10th). Where will he wind up in this last category? I crunched the numbers a few months back. Who will take over in these categories when he retires after the 2014 season? Everyone's favorite suspended player. A-Rod is second in all of these, and that won't change from sitting out a season. Then there's Ichiro.The highest non-Yankee in these categories: Adrien Beltre. We'll skip singles (that's too easy) and head over to doubles ...

  • DOUBLES: Yeah, him again, although hardly in a walk. If Todd Helton hadn't retired he'd be in first with 594. Instead it's Jeter with 525. But Albert Pujols is right behind with 524, followed by David Ortiz with 520 and A-Rod with 519. Jeter's 525 ties him with Ted Williams for 38th all-time. As for the triples title? Still Jeter?

  • TRIPLES: No, this one goes Carl Crawford (117), then Jose Reyes (111), Jimmy Rollins (107) and Juan Pierre (94), but they're all 30+ and slowing down. In his last year in Tampa, Carl hit 13. In the three years since, a total of 12. C'mon, Carl, only 192 to tie Wahoo Sam Crawford (no relation) at 309. Carl's 117 triples rank him 103rd all-time. Jeter, by the way, is ninth in this category with 65, and none since 2011. None even in his 2012 comeback year. But let's move on to HRs and RBIs and watch the boo-birds come out ...

  • HOMERUNS, RBIs: ... for this guy. A-Rod is currently 5th all-time in homers with 654 (six away from Willie), and 6th in ribbies with 1969 (23 from Lou). Albert is second in both these categories, but way, way back. Barring disaster, by the way, Albert will reach 500 HRs this year. He's sitting on 492. As for bases on balls? Is that Albert, too?

  • BASES ON BALLS: Nope. Despite being 42 with a broken rib, not to mention a tainted career, Jason Giambi ain't retired yet, so this one's his. And it's all his. Meaning it ain't tainted. You can argue all you want about how much steroids, etc., helps with homers, etc. (and they obviously do), but no PEDs that we know about can give you a better batting eye. Giambi's 1357 walks place him 32nd all-time, 18 back of Reggie Reggie Reggie. After Giambi, it's Adam Dunn with 1,246, then A-Rod (1,240), Ortiz (1,087), Uncle Albert (1,067) and finally the retiring man, Mr. Jeter (1,047). So how about its opposite? Who's the active leader in strikeouts?

  • STRIKEOUTS: Stick a fork in it, it's Dunn. Adam has 2,220 Ks, Mr. Suspended has 2,075, Mr. Retiring 1,753. Those are our top 3. Another current Yankee, Alfonso Soriano is at 1732. Pujols, by the way, is way back in 58th place with 835. Ichiro, in the same number of years, and a helluva lot fewer extra-base hits, actually has more strikeouts: 876. Dunn is currently 4th on the all-time list, 377 back of Reggie. If he doesn't flame out in the next two years, we could have a new champion. Now onto stolen bases ...

  • STOLEN BASES: Rickey Henderson's all-time record of 1,406 steals isn't the most unbreakable record in baseball. That's gotta be wins or complete games (Cy Young). But it's certainly the most unbreakable recent record. No one's close. Put it this way: You give the guy in second-place all-time, Lou Brock (938), all of the stolen bases of the active leader, Ichiro (472), and he beats Rickey by four: 1,410. Ichrio, by the way, falls back to second on the active list if anyone signs Juan Pierre and his 614 career steals (18th all-time). But then they'd also have to sign Juan Pierre and his 203 caught stealings (6th all-time). Now let's look at the pitchers. Any guesses on active career leader in wins?

  • WINS: As long as Andy Pettite stays retired, this one's a tie: between Tim Hudson, now of San Francisco, and C.C. Sabathia, still with the NY Yankees Suck. Both have 205 career wins. Pettite retired with 256, Halladay, believe it or not, with only 203. Those 205 wins from these two guys are currently good for 102nd all-time. Neither will get to 300. Will anyone? As for losses ... ?

  • LOSSES: This one was Pettite's, too (153), and it would be Barry Zito's (143) but he remains unsigned. So Mark Buehrle picks up the boobie with 142. He's followed by Ryan Dempster (133, but possibly retired), A.J. Burnett (132), and Bartolo Colon (128), who is now with the Mets, and thus has a shot at passing all of these others. Strikeouts, anyone?

  • STRIKEOUTS: C.C.'s got it with 2,389, followed by Burnett (2,180) and Dempster (2,075). Those are the only guys left in MLB with more than 2,000 Ks. It's as if these guys never faced Adam Dunn. Sabathia is 42nd all-time, between Sandy Koufax and Charlie Hough. So what about its opposite: Which active pitcher has given up the most free passes?

  • BASES ON BALLS: Do we count Ryan Dempster? He's got 1,071, which is 84th all-time. But he's gone for 2014 and possibly for good. It's not like the A-Rod thing. A-Rod's chomping at the bit to get back. Dempster, less so. So if not Dempster, and not Zito (1,058), it goes to Burnett at 955. Kudos. Now ERA ...

  • ERA: With Mariano Rivera gone but definitely not forgotten (2.20, one of the lowest ERAs in baseball history), this is all Clayton Kershaw at 2.60. That's stunning, too. Mo retired in 13th place all-time, behind Walter Johnson, and surrounded by 19th-century, deadball pitchers. Kershaw is currently 55th all-time but no active pitcher is within a half a run of him. Second-best? Adam Wainwright at 3.11, then King Felix at 3.19. The career leader is Ed Walsh: 1.81. Another era. So to speak. So what about innings pitched?

  • INNINGS PITCHED: Who among our active wins leaders has pitched more: Hudson or Sabbathia? I would've guessed C.C. but it's Hudson: 2,813.2 to 2,775.1. But both take a backseat to Buehrle at 2,882.2. BTW: On the all-time list? That's 153rd. Cy Young's on top with 7,356 IP. Buehrle's 39% of the way there. He just needs to do what he's done for his entire career about two more times. But if you want a comparision with another era, go to complete games ... 

  • COMPLETE GAMES: Since Halladay has retired he takes his 67 CGs with him, leaving us with Sabathia (37), Colon (35), Chris Carpenter (33), and Buehrle (29). If C.C. gets a CG this year, he'll move up into a six-way tie for 997th on the all-time list. That's right: 997th. Cy Young's on top with 749. C.C. just needs to do what he's done for his entire career about 20 more times. To me, this is the most unbreakable record in baseball. Now onto shutouts ...

  • SHUTOUTS: Again, Halladay leaves with his 20 shutouts, so the new active leader is Chris Carpenter (15), followed by Tim Hudson (13), and Colon, C.C. and Cliff Lee (12 each). Walter Johnson has the career record: 110. The closest any recent pitcher got? Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver. Each had 61. They're tied for seventh all-time. So who's the active career leader in saves now that Mo is gone?

  • SAVES: Bye-bye Mo at 652. Hello, Joe Nathan at 341. Second to him? Even though I still think of him as the kid who came in and shut down the Yankees in '02? It's 11-year veteran Francisco Rodriguez at 304. He's followed by Jonathan Papelbon (286), Huston Street (234), and J.J. Putz (189). BTW: One more save and Nathan passes Rollie Fingers for sole possession of 10th all-time. Now let's go to WAR for pitchers ...

  • WAR FOR PITCHERS: Halladay, Pettitte and Mo are gone (65.6, 60.9, 56.6), which leaves us with Hudson, Buehrle, Sabathia (55.3, 54.6, 54.4). Hudson's WAR ranks 73rd all-time. First place? Cy Young, with a 170.3 WAR. This, by the way, is the highest WAR for anyone. Babe Ruth, who has the highest WAR for a position player, is stuck back at 163.2. And speaking of WAR for position players ...

  • WAR FOR POSITION PLAYERS: It goes A-Rod (115.7), then Albert (93.0), Jeter (71.6), Beltre (70.5), Beltran (67.5), Ichiro (58.5). Meaning four of the top six are currently Yankees. And how much WAR did they have between them last year? A-Rod was at 0.3, Jeter -0.7, Beltran 2.4 and Ichiro 1.4 for a total of 3.4. Meaning these four guys together were worth as much as Leonys Martin of Texas. If, that is, you believe in WAR. And what kind of nut believes in WAR?

  • EXIT MUSIC FOR A SLIDESHOW: I posted this on Facebook last night after watching Dee Gordon climb the ladder: “I love the nonchalance of baseball. You make a nice catch, you don't spike the ball, you don't dance, you don't fulminate. You act like you belong.” Here's to a great season, everyone. As M's Hall of Fame announcer Dave Niehaus used to say, My oh my.
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Posted at 05:40 AM on Mar 31, 2014 in category Baseball
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Sunday March 30, 2014

Hollywood B.O.: 'Noah,' Not Considered a Christian Movie by Box Office Mojo or Christian Groups, Grosses $44 Million

Russell Crowe in NOAH

Over the weekend, Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, grossed $44 million in the U.S. How does that rank among Christian movies? It took a little work to figure out because Box Office Mojo doesn’t consider “Noah” a Christian movie. This is its definition of a Christian movie:

Movies produced by Christians that promote or embody their religions.

So a story based upon Chapters 6-9 of Genesis is not considered Christian because it was produced by ... Ari Handel? Paramount Pictures? Hollywood? Because it wasn’t Christian conservative?

If we were to consider it a Christian movie, (and why the fuck not?), “Noah” would’ve had the fourth-best opening ever in that category: after “Passion of the Christ” ($83m), and the first two “Narnia” movies ($65m, $55m).

(Sidenote: Where does “Noah” rank among movies starring Russell Crowe? If you don’t count “Man of Steel”—and I don’t—it’s ... No. 1.)

A reason to consider “Noah” a Christian movie besides the Book of Genesis is the fact that the Breitbart site doesn’t. They whine in their usual fashion. OK, writer Sam Sorbo whines. She also promotes her husband Kevin Sorbo’s movie, “God’s Not Dead,” without disclaimer. Classy. Admittedly, hubby’s film did well, $9.5m in its second weekend, dropping only 1.5%, but journalistic rules are journalistic rules. Even for Mrs. Hercules. Or maybe she thinks we all know.

In a way, “Noah” and “God’s Not Dead” demonstrate the Catch 22 that Hollywood has if it wants to, as Sorbo writes, “cash in” on “how the American public is clamoring for faith-based films.” It’s this: Hollywood needs to promote religious movies as if they’re “the religious movies Hollywood doesn’t want you to see.” The movie needs to be part of the culture wars. Christians need to feel like they’re not only showing love for their religion but spiting Hollywood. Which is stronger: love or spite? I’d go for the spite. So: a Catch 22.

Elsewhere, “Divergent,” no “Hunger Games,” fell off 51% in its second weekend and is currently at $95 million. “Muppets” fell off 33% but has grossed only $33 million in a week and a half. “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” a smart animated movie written by my friend Craig (see, Mrs. Sorbo?), fell off only 19.7% for another $9.5 million. It should pass $100 million next weekend.

The sound you didn’t hear this weekend? Anyone going to see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Sabotage,” which got a 22% on RT and grossed just $5.3 million. Adjusted, that’s his worst opening evah. Question: Is it a tumor? Maybe Arnold knows.

Another sound you didn’t hear this weekend? “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” It grossed a noisy $75.2 million but that was abroad. America gets sloppy seconds on “Captain America” next weekend.

More numbers flooding in here.

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Posted at 04:01 PM on Mar 30, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Movie Review: Noah (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

When I went to see “Noah” it was raining. When I came out the sun was shining. On my way to dinner, there was a rainbow in the sky. Was God giving me the rainbow sign? No more “Noah” ... just relax and get some bún chả.

Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is an odd little movie. Or an odd big movie. It’s based upon three short chapters, 68 verses total, in the Book of Genesis, but it lasts two and a half hours. Expect extrapolation.

Is the Christian community embracing “Noah”? I think they suspect it. It comes from Hollywood, after all, and you know what those peopleare like. Hollywood needs to find a way to promote religious movies as if they’re the religious movies Hollywood doesn’t want you to see. There’s a trick in that. Mel Gibson figured it out.

It helps that Gibson made his “Passion” culturally conservative. His Jesus was an action-hero Jesus. After being whipped, he rose again (only to be whipped again). After crucifixion, he rolled back the rock to a martial drumbeat. “Passion of the Christ” is basically the first third of a revenge movie where the final two-thirds plays out in the minds of religious conservatives everywhere. People like me and Bill Maher suffer for all of eternity in their imaginations.

Why Christians should embrace this movie
Darren Aronofsky's NOAH“Noah” fails in its cultural conservatism. Sure, the Watchers, angels who help Cain in the land east of Eden, and who are thus punished by the Creator by being turned into giant rock creatures, experience, just before the Flood, a kind of rapture, where they shed their earthly form and ascend into the skies. And, sure, the sons and daughters of Cain live in a figurative hell and are punished in the Flood. They cling to mountaintops and cry for help. And help comes not. And the world is cleansed of them.

But the ultimate message is environmental and vegetarian (read: soft and leftist). The sons of Cain slaughter the animals and leave clear-cut devastation in their wake. The sons of Seth are more benevolent. They are caretakers of the world. Unfortunately, the sons of Cain have taken over the world, while the sons of Seth have been reduced to one: Noah.

Even so, Christians should embrace this movie, if only because it makes religious doofuses like myself get our Bible again.

Adam and Eve bore three sons? Cain, Abel ... and Seth? Yes. Genesis 4:25: “And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth.”

And Noah, and thus all of us, are descendants of Seth and not Cain? Yes. Genesis 5:1-32. Basically it goes like this:

  1. Adam, who lived to be 930 years old, begat Seth, who lived to be 912.
  2. Seth begat Enos, who lived to be 905.
  3. Enos begat Cainan (910)
  4. Cainan began Mahalaleel (895)
  5. Mahalaleel begat Jared (962)
  6. Jared begat Enoch (365)
  7. Enoch begat Methuselah (969)
  8. Methuselah begat Lamech (777)
  9. And Lamech begat Noah

So it took nine generations for God to get sick of us.

But the Watchers stuff is bullshit, right? I mean, giant rock creatures?

Well, yes and no. Genesis 6:4 does say “There were giants in the earth in those days.” No mention of rock, but there were giants. That’s Biblical, baby.

Dramatic tension, pre-Flood
You know the story: wickedness, ark, animals, flood, 40 days and 40 nights, dove, olive leaf, new beginning.

Here’s how the story is presented by writer-director Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan”) and writer Ari Handel.

The children of Cain have taken over the world while the children of Seth have almost died off. It’s just father and son, Lamech and young Noah (Marton Csokas and Dakota Goyo). Then it’s just young Noah when Lamech is slain by a young Tubal-cain (Finn Wittrock), who will grow up to be bad news: Ray Winstone. Thankfully Noah grows up to be badder news: Russell Crowe. He will marry Naameh (Crowe’s “A Beautiful Mind” costar Jennifer Connelly), and begat three sons: Shem (Douglas Booth), Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo McHugh Carroll). They also pick up a stray girl nearly killed by marauders, Ila, who will thankfully grow up to be Emma Watson, the mother of us all. (Which begs the question: If Emma Watson is the mother of us all, shouldn’t we be better looking?)

Then: dreams and visions of apocalypse by water. Noah travels to the green mountain where his grandfather, Methuselah, lives (Anthony Hopkins, of course), and realizes what he’s supposed to do. Methuselah gives him a seed of Eden, which he plants, and which grows, in the arid desert around them, a vast forest with which to make an ark with the help of the Watchers. And that’s what he does. For several years.

The movie handles the animal thing well. Everyone always wondered about that. How does Noah gather all the animals? How do they live on the ark? Why don’t they eat each other? What about all the piss and shit? That’s gotta be a stinky place after 40 days and 40 nights.

Here, the animals come to him unbidden (Genesis 6: 20), go into the ark, which is a massive, rectangular creation, and immediately fall to sleep. They hibernate. So no food, no fights, no defecation. Easy peasy.

The bigger question is this: What’s the dramatic tension in the movie? Pre-flood, it’s threefold:

  • Will Ham, a moody little shit, find a wife to take on the ark?
  • Will Ila, who is barren, frigid or both, open up to Shem?
  • Will Noah finish the ark before Tubal-cain, self-proclaimed king of this region, takes it over with his army of men?

In recent years, Russell Crowe has become a kind of punching bag for some critics, but I always enjoy seeing him on the screen, and “Noah” would be a much lesser movie without him: without the force of his face and the quiet in his voice. I’ve written about this before. Not many actors can convey strength with a whisper. He does. “Why don't you dance with a man for a change?” he whispers in “L.A. Confidential.” “Doctor Wigand,” he whispers in “The Insider.” In “Noah” it’s: “I’m not alone.” At 1:10 in the trailer:

Tubal-cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I’m not alone.

I always assumed he meant God but he’s actually talking about the giant rock creatures, who reveal themselves at this strategic point and allow the work on the ark to continue. When the rains come, the descendants of Cain rush the ark, which is again defended by the rock creatures, who are then raptured. But one descendant of Cain (besides Ila) gets on board. Guess who? Right. Tubal-cain is injured, but he makes a friend in Ham, who is bitter that his father didn’t save, against impossible odds, a pretty girl he’d just found. So he wants his revenge.

And that’s part of the dramatic tension in the second half of the movie: Will the mark of Cain revisit us even as the earth is being cleansed of the sons of Cain?

Dramatic tension, post-Flood
The fundamental question on the ark is an interesting one: Is man worth saving? Or is the world better without us?

Noah, on the ark, seeks an answer from God and either doesn’t get it or it comes back in the negative. We are a plague. Better we should die off.

Ah, but a wrinkle. Thanks to Methuselah back at the foot of the mountain, Ila was cured of both barrenness and frigidity, and is now pregnant. What to do? Noah declares his answer: a boy can live, a girl will be killed. So like China in the 1980s.

It turns out to be twins. Girls.

So at this point:

  • Noah wants to kill the babies.
  • Tubal-cain, a stowaway, wants to kill Noah.
  • Ham, still pissed off, wants Tubal-cain to kill Noah. Maybe. He’s a bit wishy-washy on the subject.
  • Shem wants to kill Noah before Noah kills the babies.

It’s a bit much. Did we really need Tubal-cain here? Couldn’t it have simply been a conflict within the one family who had found grace in the eyes of the Lord?

Obviously Tubal-cain is killed by Noah and/or Ham. (I’ve already forgotten.) And Ila runs with her babies to the top of the ark, where she is followed by Noah, who has the knife in his hands. But it’s not his knife that is lowered, it’s his head; to kiss and bless the babies, even as he thinks he does ill in the eyes of the Lord.

That’s the final dramatic tension in the denouement. When the waters recede, Noah drinks homemade wine, and hides himself from his family in a cave, and is naked (Genesis 9:20-21, more or less). He has defied God’s will. He must punish himself. But lo, Ila spaketh unto him, saying God hath given him a choice, and within he found goodness and love and mercy. And so it shall be for the children of Shem, and Japheth, and even Ham, the wanderer. Unto them the choice shall be given. And unto them the choice shall be made.

Nature, grace, et al.
Let’s face it: It’s a tough gig doing the Bible, let alone Noah’s ark. In the long history of film, Crowe is only the 33rd actor to play Noah, and most of the others were supporting parts (John Huston in “The Bible: In the Beginning...” in 1966) or in animated shorts (Disney’s 19-minute-long “Noah’s Ark” from 1959). Even 1928’s “Noah’s Ark” is really about World War I.

Obviously CGI animals are easier to deal with than the real kind, so it should be easier now, but the story of Noah is more problematic than that. Aronofsky’s version, for example, ends with Noah blessing his family as God blessed them in Genesis 9:1: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.” But the second verse of God’s covenant with man is, in the movie, the philosophy of its villain, Tubal-cain: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.”

Both Noah and Tubal-cain see man in opposition to nature: either below it (as a plague) or above it (with dominion), but neither point of view is particularly interesting to me. Or correct. Dominion gives a license for greed, which man hardly needs. And Nature itself is hardly benevolent. It’s cruel. It’s X eats Y eats Z—like a giant restaurant, as Woody Allen once said.

During all this, I kept flashing to a more profound movie, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” where the mother, in voiceover, presents a greater dichotomy than “Noah” does:

The nuns taught us there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Gets others to please it, too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

In the end, “Noah,” a big, grand film with a nice lead performance by Crowe, is just too busy with subplots. It doesn’t quite resonate.

But it did force me to get out my Bible again.

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Posted at 08:40 AM on Mar 30, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Saturday March 29, 2014

Captain America (1979): The Slideshow Review


  • Was there a worse time to make a Captain America movie than 1979? Jimmy Carter's malaise speech was six months away, the Iranian hostage crisis 10 months away. In between we had gas lines and “Americathon,” a movie about the U.S. going broke and resorting to a telethon. That was the mood then. Patriotism was at a low ebb and superheroes were something geeky kids like me read. So how to do make a story out of Captain America?

  • At least there were more muscle-bound actors like Reb Brown populating Hollywood. The question remained: Could he act?

  • Or draw? This is what Steve Rogers does here. He's an ex-Marine, sure, but he's through with that shit, man. Now he wants to roam the highways and biways of the land on a never-ending mission. Wait. Wrong 1970s superhero. No, he just wants to be. Dig? He just wants to find himself. He ain't interested in being no superhero. 

  • That's what he tells Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman, the best thing in the TV movie). Mills is basically Cap's Oscar Goldman: the bland, benevolent government man who guides the protege along. He also injects him with the super serum (FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain) that Steve's father invented from his own adrenal gland. That's why only Steve can use it. Everyone else dies of cell rejection. 

  • Here, Steve is told all about FLAG and rejects the idea.

  • Here, he realizes he's been injected with it anyway.

  • Here he's just realizing ... something. Like maybe he should've taken acting lessons.

  • But the suit is delivered.

  • And the clear plastic shield ... which is also the windshield to his bike ... which he keeps in his Chevy van ... and that's all right with me.

  • But they really should've really rethought the helmet.

  • I get it. They were trying to tap into the popularity of Evel Knievel, which led to shots like these, which are pretty cool. 

  • But the helmet ain't flattering.It makes him look like the Great Gazoo.

  • Yes, we get some nice shots.

  • But they must have shot their wad on these stunts. Because the grand finale?

  • Is this: reviving an asphyxiated oil baron with a neutron bomb tied to his pacemaker.

  • If he dies, all of Arizona, and most of LA, will die with him. Will it work?

  • It works! But little else in 1979's “Captain America” does. Full review here.
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Posted at 08:01 AM on Mar 29, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s
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Friday March 28, 2014

A Certain Something

“In short, the savage is free to imagine anything; the civilized man is constrained by evidence. The known unknown “usher[s] in the era of investigation and discovery;” the unknown known is the savage’s false belief that he can explain everything.”

-- Errol Morris, from his must-read, four-part New York Times series on “The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld,” which is a forerunner to his must-see documentary on Rumsfeld, “The Unknown Known,” which opens in select cities (and on iTunes and OnDemand) April 4th. (Compare the above with “Reality-based community.”)

Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld

Donald Rumsfeld, certain. Colin Powell, certain of something else.

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Posted at 01:47 PM on Mar 28, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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TV Movie Review: Captain America (1979)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Was there a worse time to make a “Captain America” movie? This thing first aired January 19, 1979, six months before Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech, when patriotism was for squares and scoundrels and superheroes were wish-fulfillment fantasy for skinny geeks. Or so people thought. “Superman: The Movie,” released a month earlier, already proved both ideas wrong, or at least irrelevant in the marketplace, but “Captain America” tread lightly around both subjects. We don’t see Cap as Cap much. And as for patriotism? Well ...

The original Steve Rogers was a 4F volunteer who knowingly signed up for a dangerous experiment because he wanted to serve his country. This Steve Rogers is a muscle-bound, peace-loving dude with a van. He’s a former Marine who wants to coast up and down the west coast, drawing what he sees.

This is his early philosophy, as he turns down the offer to become a superhero. He says it in the bland, lifeless monotone of a non-actor:

It’s been yes-sir no-sir for as long as I can remember. Three military schools and the Marine Corps. That’s been about it. I think I’ve paid my dues ... Now I just want to get out on the road, look at the faces of Americans. Maybe get some down on canvas. I don’t want to report in or check out. I don’t want to look forward to weekends. I want every day to be the same. I just want to kick back, find out who I am.

Is there a greater late ’70s ethos than that? A van, bad art, and “finding yourself.”

The American ideal
It’s easy to see what they were going for. The great superhero of 1970s television was the Six Million Dollar Man, the great daredevil of 1970s television was Evel Knievel, and Marvel had already launched both “Spider-Man” and “Hulk” TV franchises. Mix them all together and you get this. Captain America 1979 TV movie Reb BrownGet the good Captain to do motorcycle jumps like Evel, have him jump high and crush things like Steve Austin, and make the superpower all about tapping into human potential.

Bill Bixby’s “The Incredible Hulk” did that. In moments of stress, people could lift cars and things? That’s what fascinated David Banner. Here it’s similar. “Science has known for a long time that man, in all of his endeavors—mental, physical—uses, very rarely, more than one-third of his capacity,” says Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), this show’s combination Oscar Goldman/Dr. Rudy Wells, as he tries to get Steve to become Cap.

It seems Steve’s father, back in the ’40s, had developed “the ultimate steroid,” synthesized from his own adrenal gland, that unleashed the human potential. He called it FLAG: Full Latent Ability Gain. (I know.) The serum still works ... but it kills its host. Cell rejection. But Steve is his father’s son. Same cells and shit. Maybe it’ll work with him?

Except that’s when he gives the above thanks-but-no-thanks speech and splits. Superstrength is great but ... he needs to paint, bro. Even though he looks like he’s spent his entire life in a gym.

Fate intervenes. He finds one of his father’s friends, Jeff Hayden (Dan Barton), dead. Then Steve himself is run off the road. He’s about to die. So Dr. Mills arranges for him to be injected with FLAG. To save him ... and create the show.

Guess what? Steve isn’t grateful. He’s angry—if you can sense anger behind Reb Brown’s acting. So he splits again. But he’s followed again—this time into a meat locker, where, between the slabs of beef, he takes the bad guys out. And he kinda digs it. And he spends a day at the beach with Mills’ assistant, Dr. Wendy Day (Heather Menzies), then walks along the beach just rapping with Dr. Mills about Steve’s father. How he went after the corrupt ones, “the bosses, the organizers, the ones in really high places,” and how they, snidely, gave him a nickname: Captain America. We get this:

Steve: The American ideal. A little tough to find these days, isn’t it?
Mills: Not if you know where to look.
Steve: Right on.

Yeah. Dynomite.

The bad guy in all of this is another job creator, an oilman named Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest), who is building his own neutron bomb so he can rob the Phoenix gold repository of billions. Captain America, with a motorcycle helmet for a helmet, stops him by swinging onto the truck that contains Brackett and the neutron bomb and twisting an exhaust pipe so Brackett is asphyxiated. When two henchman investigate, he knocks them out by ... wait for it .... pushing the door open really, really fast.

And thus a superhero is born. The art world’s loss is the world’s gain.

The hills are alive with something
It’s not completely, horribly awful. I like the human potential idea. And the cell-rejection answers why there are no other Captain Americas. Plus a few of the stunts aren’t bad.

But it’s shot on a thin dime with a thinner imagination and one of the worst leads I’ve seen. Reb Brown displays a range of emotion from A to A-. He’s supposed to be a nice doofus in the beginning and a superhero by the end, but in the middle he shows his cards by being a bit of an asshole. “C’mon, little man,” he says to one helpless guy after he sneaks into the Andreas Oil Co. His mighty shield is clear plastic and doubles as his motorcycle windshield. His helmet makes him look like the Great Gazoo. I get it: They’re trying to get away from the superhero costume—as most superhero movies have since (“X-Men, “Heroes,”)—but they don’t do it in a smart way. Worse, the whole thing is filmed in that awful, washed-out, late ’70s style.

Did they hire Menzies, another “Sound of Music” alum, because it worked so well with Nicholas Hammond in “Spider-Man”? Because it didn’t. And doesn’t. To be fair, Menzies is given a thankless role. She’s supposed to be the head of some top-secret government research lab but seems mere assistant to Mills. Is she also Steve’s girlfriend? They share a kiss on the beach; then she’s forgotten. So ’70s.

But at least Steve Rogers finds himself. Right on.

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Posted at 05:35 AM on Mar 28, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1970s
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Thursday March 27, 2014

Captain America (1944): The Slideshow Review


  • The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered World War II. It was a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies, but Joe Simon and Jack Kirby were bolder: they drew Cap decking Hitler on the first cover. So what did Hollywood do when they got ahold of Cap three years later? 

  • They turned him into this. Where are his wings? Where is his shield? Where's Bucky?

  • He isn't even Pvt. Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. Worse, he doesn't fight the Nazis.

  • He fights this guy.

  • With a gun.

  • He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is.

  • But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.

  • And this.

  • Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. No, he doesn't want that.

  • There's some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...

  • ... a few shots that impress.

  • And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...

  • Some of the time.

  • But it is what it is: a 15-chapter movie serial with cliffhangers. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, actually demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence.

  • He tries ...

  • ... and tries ...

  • But he keeps failing.

  • It's almost like a bad dream. Full review here. *FIN*
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Posted at 06:00 AM on Mar 27, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Wednesday March 26, 2014

Add Another Quote and Make It a Gallon

An exchange between Garson Kanin (first line) and Billy Wilder (last) in Garson Kanin's “Hollywood”:

“I quoted. ‘Work strengthens us, pleasure consumes us. Let us choose.’ You know who said that?”
“Hitler.”
“No. Goethe.”
“Same thing.”

That cracks me up. On some level, I think of shenanigans like this. Too often people consider the quoter the trump card rather than the quote. It's only gotten worse in the Internet age.

Still, not a bad quote. But only if your work isn't repetitive and soul-draining.

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Posted at 05:51 AM on Mar 26, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Tuesday March 25, 2014

Quote of the Day

“The [Georgia] bill, passed on Thursday and awaiting the governor’s signature, will, among other things, allow people to carry concealed weapons into more places — including ones, like bars, which conveniently enough are spots where they are likely to be put to use ...

”This bill is evidence that cynics were wrong when they said nothing would come of the surge of attention to guns after the Newtown, Conn., massacre in December 2012. Since then, The Times reported, 70 laws have been passed to loosen restrictions.“

-- New York Times editorial, ”In Georgia, Carry a Gun, Just Not in the Capitol," March 25, 2014. All of this is happening on our watch.

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Posted at 04:00 PM on Mar 25, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Movie Review: Captain America (1944)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. Literally.

On the cover of Captain America #1, artist Jack Kirby, not yet “Jolly Jack,” and truthfully never really “Jolly Jack,” drew Cap infiltrating Nazi headquarters. On the wall there’s a “television” showing a man blowing up a U.S. Munitions Works. On a nearby table, we see a map of the U.S.A. along with “sabotage plans” for same. And front and center, there’s Cap, in all of his red-white-and-blue glory, and with bullets zinging off his then-badge-shaped shield, decking Adolf Hitler. It was March 1941. Pearl Harbor was nine months away. Captain America was fighting the Nazis almost a year before America was fighting the Nazis.

The Republic Pictures serial “Captain America” was filmed and released in the midst of World War II (1943 and Feb. 1944, respectively), so you’d think you’d see him decking a few Nazis, if not Hitler himself, but neither is seen in this thing. Captain America isn’t in Europe, he isn’t a soldier, he isn’t even Steve Rogers. Captain America 1944He’s Grant Gardner, district attorney (Dick Purcell), fighting the Scarab (Lionel Atwill), a typical movie serial villain. There’s no Bucky, no shield, and no origin, either. The movie begins with Captain America a known figure, but there’s nothing particularly super about him. He’s not stronger than 10 men. He sometimes loses fights with one. He relies on a gun. Basically he’s a dumpy, middle-aged D.A., who, in the midst of a bumbling investigation into multiple murders, takes off his suit to reveal a red-white-and-blue outfit, with which he goes forth to engage in prolonged fistfights with two (always two) henchmen in a barn or a factory or a garage or a cave. If we didn’t know the tropes of superhero movie serials, we would think him insane.

Of fistfights and vibrators
Why watch the 1944 movie serial “Captain America”? For the history of it, I suppose. We get to see how far we’ve come. We get to see what fascinated kids—or what movie executives think fascinated kids—70 years ago.

So what fascinated kids 70 years ago?

A masked superhero? Check. Although feel free to put quote marks around “super.”

Mystical, exotic locations? Check. A group of scientists have recently returned from excavating an ancient Mayan ruins, from which they’ve discovered the usual: plant extracts that allow you to hypnotize people and make them do whatever you want, etc. Plus a lost city.

The magic gizmos of science? Check. Has anyone tabulated these, by the way? The inventions that scientists created in movie serials of the ’30s and ’40s? I think it would be worth a study. (Someone else’s study.) In this 15-chapter serial alone we get the following:

  • A thermodynamic vibration engine: it can destroy buildings.
  • A portable electronic firebolt: it cuts through safes.
  • A robot-controlled truck.
  • A radio dictograph: a bug, basically.
  • A perpetual life machine: it can bring people back from the dead.

I’ll talk more about the last one, introduced in chapter 11, later. It’s the first one, though, introduced in the first chapter, that had me snickering like Beavis and/or Butthead. Because it led to lines like this:

  • “I want to know more about the vibrator!”
  • “We’re not the only ones who know the secret of Lyman’s dynamic vibrator!”
  • “Mr. Merritt and Mr. Norton are here to witness your demonstration of the vibrator! ... I know the secret of this machine and it’s a heavy responsibility.”

Indeed.

The Scarab is really Dr. Cyrus Maldor, who was a participant in the recent scientific expedition to the ancient Mayan ruins. Now, behind the bland facade of the Drummond Museum of Arts and Sciences, with its suspicious-looking shoeshine boy out front, he’s killing off all the other members of the expedition. Why? We don’t find out until Chapter 13. It has to do with two halves of a map to the fabled Lost City of Zada, where riches beyond anyone’s imagination can be found.

So ... money. Always money.

The problem with the radio dictograph
Look, I know the deal. I know these serials were made quickly, with little budget, a long time ago, and designed to keep viewers coming back next week. I guess I just want them to sense within their own framework.

Maldor? The Scarab? He can hypnotize people. So if the end game is the other part of the map, why not hypnotize people into revealing who has it? Why not hypnotize them into finding out where it is. They can do your work for you. Instead, he has them commit suicide. Then he goes after Prof. Lyman’s vibrator. Why? I’m not sure. The next chapter it’s the firebolt. So he can crack safes. What does that have to do with the Lost City of Zada? And why doesn’t he just hypnotize guards or bank managers to get into the safes? Seriously, the man needs to focus. But focus has never been big in movie serials.

My favorite nonsense bit is from Chapter 14 when the Scarab finally captures G.F. Hillman (John Hamilton, Perry White from the “Adventures of Superman” TV series), the man who has the other half of the map. Hillman is taken to a secluded farm, where Maldor reveals himself to be the Scarab. Then he says the movie-villain line:  “You are very headstrong. But there are ways of making you talk.”

Ah, back to the hypnosis, I suppose.

Nope. “Tie him to that chandelier!” he says. Then he whips him.

Did he forget he could hypnotize people into telling the truth? Is he a sadist? Did he just need the exercise?

Neither of our principals is exactly Einstein. By Chapter Six, Maldor suspects Gardner is Captain America. That’s why they bug his place. But when Gardner returns home, his assistant, Gail Richards (Lorna Gray), reaches him on the phone and mentions in passing that his line has been busy. This clues Gardner in. Someone has been in his apartment! And he finds the radio dictograph. Now he has the upper hand! He knows, but they don’t know he knows. So what does he do?

At this point, the Scarab is blackmailing an oilman, J.C. Henley (Tom Chatterton), for a million dollars. So Gardner tells Henley, within range of the bug, that they’re including a “radioactive cell” in the briefcase full of money. “By means of triangulation,” he says, “we can locate the case wherever it is taken.” But it’s a lie. They’re not bugging it at all. The oilman is confused. So are we. How does this help? They’re letting the bad guys know they can locate them when they really can’t. Gotcha! Or ... would .... if we knew where you were. Really, the whole thing is just an excuse to leave the briefcase in the hills atop Los Angeles, so there can be a fight in a nearby cave, during which Captain America will fall down a mineshaft and ...

And we start over again.

The radio dictograph? Forgotten in the next episode. The briefcase full of money? Taken. But Gardner does plant a story in the press about how the bills were all marked, so they’re useless to the Scarab. Ha ha. Except all this does is refocus the Scarab’s anger on Henley. “I was a fool to take your advice” Henley says to our hero. Totally. Plus you’re out a million bucks. That money ain’t coming back.

At least Henley lives. More than you can say for others under Gardner’s protection. Prof. Lyman (Frank Reicher), he of the dynamic vibrator, dies in Chapter 1. The inventor of the electronic firebolt, Prof. Dodge (Hugh Sothern), lasts a few chapters before getting it in Chapter 5. Then Lyman’s brother, Dr. Clinton Lyman (Robert Frazer), comes onto the scene with the greatest invention of all: He can reanimate the dead! Wow. This may be the greatest invention of all time. And what does he get for his trouble? Dead. Somehow this ineptitude is spun into heroic deeds for Gardner and Captain America. At one point, the Scarab, still intent on revenge on Henley, sends two men to blow up his Gas Works plant. Captain America battles them but can’t turn off the pressure gauges. Kablooey! The report on the radio the next morning? Only one of the buildings blew up “... thanks to the timely arrival of Captain America!” Some press agent he’s got.

The greatest insult may be how often Captain America gets a bead on the two henchmen in the remote location but for nothing. It works this way. They’re planning something nefarious. He shows up with gun drawn. One of them throws something at him and knocks the gun loose. Then there’s a fistfight. Then he is imperiled and ...

See you next week.

The final death
Interestingly, for all its faults, the serial has been praised by fans of the genre. They say it’s Lionel Atwill’s best work—and he’s not bad in it. They say the fight scenes are among the best—and they’re athletic and well-choreographed. But it’s still a dance whose outcome we know. It’s still painful to watch.

This doesn’t help: Did the strain of making the serial contribute to actor Dick Purcell’s death by heart attack at the age of 36, just a few months after filming? He’s often called the first actor to play Captain America; but he’s also the first actor who died suddenly after playing a superhero. We call it the Superman curse but maybe it should be the superhero curse.

Captain America was only the fourth comic-book-based, live-action superhero to show up on our movie screens—after Captain Marvel (1941), Batman (1943), and The Phantom (1943)—but he wouldn’t return for another 35 years, and even then it was on the small screen in an abysmal 1979 TV movie starring Reb Brown. Eleven years later they tried again, with Matt Salinger, and with worse results. (Jack Kirby fought to get his name on the movie; after its premiere, he wanted to get his name off the movie.) Meanwhile, Superman and Batman movies are being made again and again. Then X-Men movies and Spider-Man movies and the Fantastic Four and even freakin’ Ghost Rider starring Nic Cage. But Cap? Bupkis.

It wasn’t until 2011, 67 years after this one, that Cap finally became the subject of a theatrical movie that got released in the U.S., “Captain America: The First Avenger,” starring Chris Evans. They got it right, too. They had him fighting Nazis.

SLIDESHOW


  • Captain America was born fighting the Nazis. The first issue came out in March 1941, nine months before the U.S. entered the war, a time when Hollywood was still timid about making anti-Nazi movies. But Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, in a nascent industry with fewer rules, had no problem at all drawing Cap decking Hitler on their first cover.

  • Yet this is Cap when he finally turns up in the movies. Where are his wings? His shield? Bucky? None of them made the transfer to the silver screen.

  • He isn't even Steve Rogers. He's Grant Gardner, district attorney. And he doesn't even fight the Nazis.

  • He fights this guy.

  • With a gun.

  • He does have this hot number as an assistant. She seems to know Grant is Cap. She also sends the final clue that will make the D.A. (or C.A.) realize who the villain is. She saves the day.

  • But for most of the serial, she's reduced to this.

  • Or she's being hypnotized into doing whatever the Scarab wants. (Pity every boy in America watching this in 1944, with better imaginations.)

  • Then back to this.

  • There is some cool stuff in the 15 chapters: Cap riding a motorcyle ...

  • ... a few shots that impress.

  • And it's kinda cool when he changes into Cap ...

  • Some of the time.

  • But it is what it is. The title cards, which are supposed to get us up-to-date at the beginning of each episode, also demonstrate Cap's complete incompetence throughout the serial.

  • Captain America tries ...

  • ... and he tries ...

  • But he keeps failing.

  • It's like it's all a bad dream.
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Posted at 06:30 AM on Mar 25, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 1940s
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Monday March 24, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Those who deal with the mass audience tend to become cynical as they search for the lowest common denominator of appeal.”

-- Garson Kanin, “Hollywood,” his memoir and warts-and-all love letter to Samuel Goldwyn, who never suffered the above problem. In fact, Kanin gives him the last line: “The public is f'Chrissake smarter than we are!” Would that I believed that. Would that it were true.

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Posted at 03:04 PM on Mar 24, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Carson Karin Gets No Respect

I already mentioned the typo on Amazon's Kindle that changes Hollywood legend Garson Kanin to Garson Karin.

This is from the New York Times site: a review of the book I'm reading:

Garson Kanin Gets No Respect

I recommend the book, by the way, Kanin's memoir, “Hollywood,” because it's informative and damn, damn fun, even if (caveat) it should be a little tighter and better organized. But if you like stories, this one's got 'em. Basically, it's a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood in general and Samuel Goldwyn in particular. It's the best kind of love letter: the kind that sees the faults.

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Posted at 04:36 AM on Mar 24, 2014 in category Books
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Sunday March 23, 2014

Sophia Loren: The Wrong Kind of Sexy

Another great story from Garson Kanin's memoir, “Hollywood.”

Apparently in the late 1950s, Spencer Tracy approached Kanin, who wrote some of the great movies of the late '40s and early '50s (“Adam's Rib,” “Born Yesterday”), to write something for him and Sophia Loren, who, as Kanin writes, “had recently come upon the scene, bringing with her a sultry, volcanic, sexual quality that had long been missing from the screen.” Kanin did. Problem? No one wanted it. Because? None of them, Tracy, Kanin or Loren, had been successful at the box office in recent years. Tracy agreed to less money, Loren, too. Kanin agreed to waive his director fee. Nada.

But Kanin's agent, the wonderfully named Abe Lastfogel, insisted Kanin pitch to Lou Schreiber at 20th Century Fox. He did. Smartly. He told him the story first so Schreiber was interested. Then he kept describing the main characters so Schreiber would suggest the actors Kanin already had in mind. Schreiber bit:

   “It sounds like Spencer Tracy to me. Could you get him?”
   “We sure in hell could try,” I said. “Great idea, Lou. I have the feeling he might go for this.”

Then he did the same for the female lead. Nada. Schreiber had no one in mind. So Kanin made the leap to Sophia Loren himself. Schreiber was less than excited.

   “Sophia Loren!” Schreiber repeated incredulously. We could not have done worse had we suggested Tokyo Rose.
   “What's the matter with Sophia Loren?” I said. “She's beautiful, she's young, she's a tremendous screen presence ...”

But it was the box office. Loren had made a string of bad movies for Hollywood that had done nothing. Kanin insisted it wasn't her fault.

   “How come you guys always blame someone else? She didn't pick the subject and she didn't write the picture. She didn't direct it or cut it or release it. So how come it's her fault?”
   “You know why,” said Schreiber. “It’s because that’s the kind of personality she is. Women don’t like her. She makes them nervous. She’s too sexy.”
   “What’s wrong with that?”
   “Too sexy in the wrong way.”
   “I didn’t know there was a wrong way.”

So the picture's never made and everyone goes onto other things. Fifteen months later, Schreiber called Lastfogel to see if he still represented Loren and if she was available. Yes and yes. So he sent over an offer: $1 million guaranteed to appear in ”The Story of Ruth.“

Kanin: ”It was a lesson I never forgot." 

Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren: the wrong kind of sexy?

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Posted at 12:51 PM on Mar 23, 2014 in category Books
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Saturday March 22, 2014

Captain America's Message to Fox News

In anticipation of the new Captain America movie, I recently watched the 1944 serial starring Dick Purcell as Grant Gardner, district attorney, who also happens to be ... Captain America! So where's Steve Rogers? And Bucky? And his mighty shield? And World War II? And the wings on his helmet? Good questions. At least there's this WW II-era poster on the wall of one scene:

No room for rumors: Captain America

NO ROOM FOR RUMORS. How has the left not used this slogan, not to mention the poster itself, against Fox News and all of its rumors? Seriously. Someone needs to plaster this thing over Roger Ailes' mouth. We need to say it every time Bill O., or Karl R., or any of the countless rumormongers on that network get going. Let's face it. If the WWII-era slogan would appeal to any demographic, it would appeal to Fox's demographic.

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Posted at 06:24 AM on Mar 22, 2014 in category Photo of the Day
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Friday March 21, 2014

Movie Review: Sin City (2005)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s a little like Fox News, isn’t it? Grizzled old white dudes and babes. Moral righteousness leading to torture. A mangling of the English language. Prostitution.

I’m looking at you, Greta van Susteren.

I’ll give “Sin City” this: It’s the most comic-booky of movies. Entire shots look like comic panels. There’s a beautiful, hand-drawn simplicity in the look even as there’s confusion about the directors. The movie was “shot and cut” by Robert Rodriguez, but it was “directed” by Rodriguez and Frank Miller, the writer-artist of the “Sin City” graphic novels, while Quentin Tarantino is listed as a “guest director.” Sin City posterApparently, he did one small, forgettable scene.

For all these hands, not to mention the three-plus storylines, there’s cohesion here. It’s all of a piece. It connects and interconnects. But it’s putrid. It reveals a sick society. Not the one in the movie but the one that watches the movie.

Cool and cruel
“Sin City” worships at the twin altars of cool and cruel. Its heroes are cool, with scarred faces and overcoats swirling like capes in the wind, and they speak in the sentence fragments of Mickey Spillane: “Just one hour to go. My last day on the job. Early retirement. Not my idea. Doctor’s orders. Heart condition.”

They’re also cruel. It’s not enough to kill the bad guys; they need to torture them first. I’m reminded of Nathan Zuckerman’s line from Philip Roth’s novel “Zuckerman Unbound.” It’s 1969, and in the wake of MLK and RFK and someone taking a potshot at his old professor through his study window, Zuckerman thinks, “Blowing people apart seemed to have replaced the roundhouse punch in the daydreams of the aggrieved: only annihilation gave satisfaction that lasted.” Now even annihilation isn’t enough. Now you have to tie them to a tree and cut off their arms and legs and summon the dogs.

We get three stories about grizzled, tough men fighting an almost superhuman corruption on behalf of a sexy, female purity.

In the bookending stories, Hartigan (Bruce Willis), a cop with the proverbial day to go before retirement, plus a heart condition, risks it all to save an 11-year-old girl, Nancy, from the clutches of a deranged child molester/torturer, Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl), who just happens to be the protected son of U.S. Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). Hartigan succeeds, but his partner, Bob (Michael Madsen), has been bought, and shoots him and leaves him for dead. “An old man dies, a little girl lives,” Hartigan thinks. “Fair trade.” Except he’s not dead. More on that later.

In the second story, superstrong Marv (Mickey Rourke), with a face as blunt as the old Spider-Man villain Hammerhead, is enjoying a night with a beautiful blonde named Goldie (Jamie King) on a heart-shaped bed. She’s in color, he’s not. (Most of the women in this thing are in color.) Goldie smells like angels ought to smell. She’s the perfect woman. A goddess. So says Marv in voiceover. Then he wakes up beside her corpse, framed for the murder. The rest of the story is less to clear his name than avenge Goldie’s killer. It was one night with a prostitute but Marv is in love.

He gets intel from his parole officer, Lucille (Carla Gugino), nekkid, va-va-voomy, gay. “She’s a dyke but god knows why,” Marv tells us. “With that body of hers she could have any man she wants.” Right, but she doesn’t want. This attitude permeates the movie.

He gets intel holding a man’s head in the toilet. “It was Connelly!” the dude sputters. “But he won’t talk.” CUT TO: Marv holding a man’s face on the ground as he drives his car around town. To us: “Connelly talks. They all talk.” This attitude permeates the movie.

The villain? A supersilent cannibal named Kevin (Elijah Wood), who eats prostitutes with the movie’s true villain, Cardinal Patrick Henry Roark (Rutger Hauer), the most powerful man in the state. His brother is a U.S. Senator because of him. He owns the cops. And he’s got a taste for flesh. Or souls. “He ate their souls,” Roark says of Kevin. “And I joined him. They were all whores. Nobody cared for them.” Ah, but one man did. He cared for Goldie, and for her twin sister, Wendy, who visits him on death row after Marv tortures and kills Roark, and is then framed for all of Kevin’s crimes. Question: With Roark gone, who’s running things? Or does a corrupt system continue on automatic without a corrupt man pulling the levers?

In the third story, prostitutes, in the midst of a truce with corrupt cops, kill a woman-beater, Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Torro), who has wandered into their territory. Oops, he’s a cop. A hero cop. Question: How come nobody knows this? His picture was all over the media and not one person recognized him? Read a newspaper, for Chrissake. The rest of the story concerns the lengths Dwight (Clive Owen) will go to destroy the evidence before the cops find out.

Finally, we return to Hartigan, who is framed for child molestation, spends eight years in solitary where his only solace are the letters of 11-year-old Nancy, then gets out when the letters stop coming. He searches for her. Guess what? Not only is she the superhot dancer at the bar they all attend (Jessica Alba), but this is what the bad guys wanted: for him to lead them to her. Because Roark, Jr. has unfinished business. In an attempt to regrow the balls Hartigan blew off, Roark Jr. has turned hideous and yellow, more Ferengi than human. As a child molester, too, one wonders what he wants with Jessica Alba in full womanhood. Moot point. By the end, to Nancy’s relieved, half-smiling face, Hartigan rips off his balls with his bare hands. Then she and Hartigan get away. But Hartigan knows there is no “away” for Nancy as long as he’s alive. So he tells her some nice words, sends her on her way, and thinks the “Fair trade” line again as he puts his gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

Not feeling it
That’s how it goes down in Frank Miller’s world: the grizzled (Hartigan, Marv, Dwight), with ailments (heart condition, hallucinations, plastic surgery), protect the sexy (Jessica Alba, Rosario Dawson, Jaime King, Brittany Murphy) from the sick and powerful (cannibals, child molesters, woman beaters). Viewers get to think themselves heroes while indulging in torture. In this way, it’s a good Bush-era film.

At one point, Dwight thinks up this prose-poem to Miho (Devon Aoki), the sword-wielding protector of prostitutes:

Deadly little Miho.
You won’t feel a thing unless she wants you to.
She twists the blade.
He feels it.

But we don’t. Which is how we can watch crap like this.


  • In Sin City, the grizzled ...

  • ... protect the sexy ...

  • ... from the sick.

  • In Sin City, the grizzled ...

  • ... protect the sexy ...

  • ...from the sick.

  • Grizzled ...

  • ... sexy ...

  • ... sick.

  • It's nicely art-directed anyway.
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Posted at 07:23 AM on Mar 21, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Thursday March 20, 2014

North Carolina: Now with Less Tar, More Heels

In his profile of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, “Holder v. Roberts,” the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin makes a pass through North Carolina and lets us know what's happened there since they elected a Republican governor, Pat McCrory, in 2012, and the GOP expanded its hold on both houses:

At that point, the Republicans went on a legislative tear, ending benefits for the long-term unemployed, declining the expansion of Medicaid offered by the Affordable Care Act, and cutting taxes and government spending, especially for education.

Then in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the general assembly, led by Sen. Bob Rucho, passed House Bill 589, which Rick Hasen of the University of California at Irvine calls “the most sweeping anti-voter law in decades.” It includes:

  • the elimination of same-day registration
  • the elimination of a week  of early voting
  • the end of pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds
  • the end of straight party ticket voting
  • the repeal of public finance provisions for elections
  • an increase in maximum campaign contributions
  • a strict voter I.D. requirement that excludes student and public employee I.D.s

It was signed into law last August.

The state motto of North Carolina is Esse quam videri: to be rather than to seem. So true. They no longer seem racist.

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Posted at 02:40 PM on Mar 20, 2014 in category Politics
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Wednesday March 19, 2014

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“300: Rise of an Empire” is a modern retelling of the Battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., when the Persian Empire, led by Xerxes I and his naval commander Artemisia (Rodrigo Santoro and Eva Green), took on the united Greek city-states under its commander Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton). Though vastly outnumbered, the Greeks ultimately prevailed. Some scholars have suggested that without this victory, western civilization, and thus our modern world, wouldn’t have existed.

So how did Themistocles and Greece do it? Here’s our history lesson from “300” director Noam Murro and screenwriters Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, who based the movie on an unpublished graphic novel by Frank Miller.

Themistocles was totally winning an earlier battle against the Persian fleet, right? 300: Rise of an EmpireLike on the first day his ships form a circle so the Persians don’t know where to attack, and on the second day it’s foggy so he draws the Persian ships near Greece and dashes them on the rocks. This sexy chick, Artemisia, watching from her ship, totally digs this. She knows her dudes are nothing in comparison, so she invites Themistocles aboard where they have rough sex on tables and countertops and she asks him to join the Persian side, but he turns her down even as he’s got like a handful of tittie. Which totally pisses her off, right? Getting turned down like that? Chicks, right? So on the third day she dumps tar into the sea and lights it on fire, leaving Themistocles with just a couple of dudes. Plus his friend dies. The one with the son.

Now it looks really hopeless because Persia totally ruled then. Xerxes, the 10-foot-tall God-king of Persia, has already burned Athens; and King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans, the kick-ass dudes from the first movie, have bit it, too. Because this movie takes place like before, during and after that other one.

So now Themistocles tries to get Leonidas’ old lady, Queen Gorgo (the mean chick from “Game of Thrones”), to join their cause, and you think she would, for revenge and all, but no. She’s grieving, bro. Plus he’s Athens and she’s Sparta. But then Themistocles, he gives this kick-ass speech to his men about how it’s better to die on their feet than live on their knees, and they go, “Raaahhhhh!” And they’re like kicking ass against the Persians. But then sexy chick, Artemisia, she’s shouting, like, I’m not sticking on the sidelines, bro-men, and starts messing up dudes. And everything reverses. Ah, but our man Themistocles, he’s got a secret. It’s a horse. On his ship. And he rides his horse from his ship to the Persian ships, killing guys left and right. And this horse is like superhorse, man, cause he’s riding it not only on top of ships but like through burning ships and into the water and then up and out of the water and back onto a ship, until it’s just him and sexy chick left. And they go at it hot and heavy until they have swords at each other’s throats and no one makes a move. They just stand there staring at each other. Then “Game of Thrones” chick starts yakking out of nowhere about how sexy chick feels this breeze. And that’s the breeze of freedom, yo. Because here she comes, “Game of Thrones” chick, she and the Spartan Navy, like Han Solo at the end of the first “Star Wars.” And that’s when sexy chick dies and our dudes light up the Persians and go charging, rahrrrr, right at the screen, and boom!, credits, with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” blasting, bro.

Don’t you just love history?

Boy loving philosophers
The best thing you can say about “300: Rise of an Empire” is that it’s less Fascistic than the first. We even get some revisionist history. In “300,” the war between Xerxes and Leonidas started because rather than pay tribute to Xerxes, Leonidas kicked his Persian messenger into a bottomless pit. Apparently it was more complicated.

The war actually began 10 years earlier when, near the end of another battle, Themistocles picked up a spear on the shore and pierced the chest of King Darius of Persia (Igal Naor) standing on his ship, right in front of his son, Xerxes, who vowed revenge. But Darius, on his deathbed, tells him not to attack the Greeks because the gods favor them. Except Artemisia whispers in his ear that Darius wasn’t forbidding his son but challenging him. That’s when Xerxes wanders in the desert (why exactly?) and finds a mystical cave and bathes in the waters there. When he emerges, he’s bald, gold and 10-feet tall. As often happens.

Leonidas, in other words, wasn’t being unreasonable at the beginning of “300.” He was being provoked.

If the first movie is all about Sparta, this one is all about Athens, whom Leonidas had dismissed as “those philosophers, and, uh, boy lovers.” Sadly, we don’t hear much philosophy or see much boy loving, and while the Athenians are less martial than the Spartans, with fewer professional soldiers, it’s still the same drill: six-pack abs, slow-mo battles, slicing and dicing. It’s martial arts madness mixed with sandals and swords mixed with “Saw.” It’s yet another movie in which compromise is for mealy-mouthed politicians who are determined to weaken the country. They don’t know the enemy. They don’t know the meaning of ... freedom.

I’m curious how director Noam Murro got this gig. One credit, “Smart People,” a small indie film, and he’s handed this? Is it indicative of how little Warner Bros. thought of its franchise? Let’s hope so.

The new hero, Sullivan Stapleton, an Aussie, isn’t much, either. His right-hand men are less. Most everyone acts against a green screen while Eva Green simply overacts. What happened to her? She went from Bertolucci in 2003 to Bond in 2006 to “Dark Shadows” in 2012 and a Frank Miller doubleheader this year: sequels to “300” and “Sin City.” Blech. Talk about a downward trajectory.

War Pigs
Anyway, as you already knew, “300: Rise of an Empire” is a waste of time. I can’t imagine the mind of anyone who actually enjoys it. But I felt the same about “300.”

Final thought: Why “War Pigs” as a closing-credits song? Isn’t it an anti-war song?

Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of death’s construction

It’s about the wealthy sending the poor to fight their battles. So what’s it doing at the end of this pro-war movie?

That’s what I was thinking at the end of the movie. And then it hit me anew. How awful is that? How awful to make a pro-war movie? How awful to create a story on film about righteous bloodlust and righteous cruelty and stopping an absolute evil in the name of western civilization? Movies like this, which make hundreds of millions of dollars, actually encourage people to like war. That’s where western civilization is right now. It’s almost enough to make you wish the Persians had won.

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Posted at 05:55 AM on Mar 19, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Tuesday March 18, 2014

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There is, at the end of “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson’s latest bit of cinematic whimsy and charm, a description of its main character, Gustave F. (Ralph Fiennes), a fastidious, tragicomic, but ultimately dignified concierge at the title hotel in an imaginary Eastern European country, the Republic of Zubrowka, during the years before World War II, that is one of the better descriptions of Wes Anderson and his films I’ve encountered.

Our narrator, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), has been asked, years after the main events in the movie, if he traded a fortune for the now-faded Grand Budapest in order to keep alive the world of M. Gustave, his mentor. He smiles sadly and says:

To be frank, I think his world had vanished long before he ever entered it. But I will say he certainly sustained the illusion with a marvelous grace.

That’s lovely. And isn’t it Wes Anderson? So much about him feels like it belongs to a vanished, bygone era. Increasingly, Anderson’s bygone era isn’t even vanished (1960s British music, 1950s board games), but imaginary, and as exquisitely detailed as the contents of the Glass family medicine chest in J.D. Salinger’s “Zooey.” The Grand Budapest HotelFrom this film alone, see: L’Air Panache, Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat, and the masterpiece “Boy with Apple” by Johannes van Hoytl. See also: the names of several characters (Gustave F., Serge X. and Madame D.), who, in the tradition of 19th century literature, have their family names redacted, as if revealing them is something that’s just not done in polite society.

That society, sadly, is about to go away. It’s 1930s Europe. The country of Zubrowka may not exist but Fascism does. And it’s about to collide with the better manners of M. Gustave.

A world of manners
We enter in stages.

The movie begins in the present day. A girl with a dog-eared book genuflects beneath the statue of a bespectacled man, “OUR NATIONAL TREASURE,” where myriad keys are hung from hooks around its base. One wonders: Who is the man? And what’s the deal with the keys?

Then we cut to 1985, where the national treasure, an unnamed author (Tom Wilkinson), is talking to the camera and answering the question people always ask of writers: Where do you get your ideas? His answer is unique. He says after a modicum of fame, you don’t have to think things up anymore. People offer you stories unbidden.

Then we cut to 1968 and the faded, Communist-infused glory of the Grand Budapest Hotel, where the youthful national treasure, now Jude Law, is recuperating after a mild case of “Scribe’s Fever.” The nearly-empty hotel is full of characters, including Mr. Zero Moustafa, the owner, and the richest man in Zubrowka, who, after introductions in the underground mineral baths, tells the author, over a grand dinner, the story of M. Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel.

At which point we’re back to 1932.

In my fiction-writing days I always wanted to do this: have a story lead to a story lead to a story. It’s a Russian nesting doll of stories. It’s as precariously balanced as a Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat.

M. Gustave, though modeled on a mutual friend of Anderson and artist/screenwriter Hugo Guinness, will be familiar to anyone who knows Anderson’s work. As Royal Tenenbaum had Pagoda, Gustave has Zero (Tony Revolori), the loyal understudy. As Max Fischer had a coterie of men to whom he dictates precise orders, so does Gustave at the Grand Budapest. One of my favorite moments in “Rushmore” is when Max gets kicked out of his beloved prep school, winds up in public school, and on the first day gives a speech before his newer, tougher, slacker classmates. “Now he’s in for it,” you think. Except he isn’t. He remains himself, geekily himself, and gets along. Similarly, here, Gustave is taken from his beloved Grand Budapest to prison, where, despite his newer, tougher cellmates, he remains himself and gets along. He pushes a metal cart past prison cells offering up plates of mush. He struggles to keep up appearances:

No? Anyone? You—with the very large scar on your face? Come now, try it. It’s actually quite warm and nourishing this morning. It needs a dash of salt.

I like this idea—treat the world with respect and it will return the favor—even if I don’t quite believe it. Some aspect of it may be true, but it’s only true until it isn’t.

The plot. At the Grand Budapest, Gustave beds the various rich old ladies who show up there, including Madame D., 84 (Tilda Swinton). “I’ve had older,” he tells Zero with pride on the way to Madame D.’s funeral, where he sweet-talks the corpse, greets the staff, and is then bequeathed, in Madame D.’s will, not the bulk of the estate—that goes to her awful son Dmitri (Adrien Brody)—but a priceless painting, “Boy with Apple.” It leads to a nice sight-gag. Gustave is punched in the face by Dmitri, who is punched in the face by Zero, who is punched in the face by Dmitri’s right-hand man, the sinister Jopling (Willem Dafoe), who will do much of the punching and killing for the next hour.

At one point, we get this exchange:

Dmitri: You’re not getting “Boy with Apple,” you goddamned little fruit!
Gustave (legitimately hurt): How’s that supposed to make me feel?

Fiennes’ line readings are wonderful. He’s wonderful. Do we suggest Oscar nomination? It’s a bit early in the season. Plus “Budapest” is a comedy, and comedies are overlooked by the Academy. Plus no actor Anderson has directed has received an Oscar nomination. These are all the Oscar nominations from all of his movies:

Is the Academy right to short-change him? There’s certainly a two- dimensionality to his style. He’s a master of the straight-on shot and the profile shot and not much in-between. It’s as if everything’s been flattened. It’s as if we’re seeing it all in the pages of some exquisite book.

His characters have a similar two-dimensionality. They represent a thing and don’t deviate much from that thing. Question: Are they becoming more two-dimensional? In the early Anderson films, his protagonists, in order to grow, in order to become the very thing they were pretending to be, needed to forgive and embrace their enemies: Herman Blume for Max Fischer; Henry Sherman for Royal Tenenbaum; Alistair Hennessey for Steve Zissou. Is this still true? Redford, the antagonist in “Moonrise,” remains outside the circle, unforgiven and unforgiveable. Same here with Jopling and Dmitri. Is this a wiser lesson? An admission that you can’t embrace everyone? That there are bastards in the world?

That said, even in Anderson’s flattened world, there is a three-dimensionality to Fiennes’ performance. You sense, particularly in prison, a melancholy beneath his tidiness. He keeps up appearances even though he knows he’s in a losing battle.

A world of yesterdays
Anderson still has his toys. Along with the Russian nesting dolls referenced earlier, we see a dollhouse (our first shot of the Grand Budapest), and a Rube Goldberg contraption: the prison breakout of Gustave and his cellmates, which is the most needlessly complicated enterprise ever. After digging out of their cell, going through a crawl space, knocking out some prison bars, taking a rope ladder down the tower, they still have to swing over a roomful of sleeping guards. And even then it’s not over. I think Anderson gets a child’s joy out of seeing how long he can keep that marble rolling.

But he’s growing a bit. He’s dealing with the darkness of history and the human condition. We see murders, a beheading, a blow job, and a stand-in for the S.S., the Z.Z., that takes over the country as well as the Grand Budapest Hotel. We sense melancholy.

Anderson says “The Grand Budapest Hotel” was inspired by the works of Viennese writer/poet/biographer Stefan Zweig, particularly his memoir “The World of Yesterday,” and that title is certainly reflected in the movie. We go through a world of  yesterdays (1985, 1968, 1932) to get to a protagonist who lives in a world of yesterday: a world in which 19th-century manners matter. As for Wes Anderson’s world of yesterday? I would argue it’s a world where art and literature matter; where they’re of such primary importance that a country actually builds a statue to a contemporary writer. You don’t have to look around much in our world to see what an illusion that is. But in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Wes Anderson sustains that illusion with a marvelous grace.

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Posted at 07:22 AM on Mar 18, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday March 17, 2014

Quote of the Day

“Just to be clear, there’s no evidence that Mr. Ryan is personally a racist, and his dog-whistle may not even have been deliberate. But it doesn’t matter. He said what he said because that’s the kind of thing conservatives say to each other all the time. And why do they say such things? Because American conservatism is still, after all these years, largely driven by claims that liberals are taking away your hard-earned money and giving it to Those People.”

-- Paul Krugman, “That Old-Time Whistle,” New York Times, March 17, 2014. Read the whole thing.

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Posted at 09:23 AM on Mar 17, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday March 16, 2014

Junk Mail for the Elderly

Last year my sister and I bought my mom, now in her 80s, a condo in a 55-and-over building in south Minneapolis. It's both in my name and my mom's name, so I assume that's the reason my mom received some junk mail from the Neptune Society at my home in Seattle. It came in a pale yellow envelope with her name mock-typed on the front, so at first glance it seems like personal mail. At first I thought someone sent us a card.

Inside there's a return envelope and two small, pale yellow pieces of stationery with a lavender banner. One of the pages is a letter from Tim Nicholson, President/COO, using a cheesy, near-cursive font. Here's how it begins:

Dear Betty,

For a variety of reasons, more and more people are choosing to plan for a memorialized cremation over traditional funeral arrangement—and the numbers are increasing every year!

The other page includes a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt about today being a gift (which is why it's called “the present”), a photo of an elderly man playing ring-around-the-rosie with his grandkids at the beach, and an offer to WIN A PRE-PAID CREMATION.

Thoughts:

  • You mean over *a* traditonal funeral arrangement?
  • I would've lost the exclamation point.
  • I seriously doubt Eleanor Roosevelt said that.

I have other thoughts, too.

No tagsPosted at 11:20 AM on Mar 16, 2014 in category Culture
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Mr. Peabody Strongarms ‘300,’ Blows Past ‘Need for Speed’

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Mr. Peabody & Sherman: Fast enough.

In its second weekend, “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” written by my friend Craig, was the top movie at the box office, grossing $21.2 million for a domestic total of $63.1. It’s made about that much again abroad. Not great but still #1. Plus I think the quality of it will find an audience with parents who want a bit of history with their kid’s roller-coaster ride.

Last week’s winner, “300: Rise of an Empire” fell off big, 57%, for a weekend gross of $19 million and second place. The less said.

Meanwhile, the new big release, “Need for Speed,” opened weak at $17.8 million. No surprise  Video game adaptations have never done well at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, 33 video games have been turned into movies, and only one has grossed more than $100 million: “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” way back in June 2001; and that probably had a little to do with star Angelina Jolie in her tank top and shorts. Gamers just aren’t goers. And “Speed” star, Aaron Paul, may have made fans with AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” but I doubt those fans are also fans of dopey race-car movies. Anyone know the venn diagram on that? Anyone want to create one?

The other semi-big release, “Tyler Perry’s The Single Mom’s Club,” bombed, bringing in $8.3 million in 1,896 theaters, which is the second-weakest opening for any of his 16 films after last year’s “Tyler Perry Presents Peeples” ($4.6 million and a total gross of $9.1 million). Maybe the key is in the saturation: 16 films in nine years? Dude, spend some time on a rewrite.

“Non-Stop” grossed another $10 million ($68 domestic), “The LEGO Movie” another $7 ($236), “Son of God” another $5 ($50).

Happily, Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” grossed $3.6 million in just 66 theaters for eighth place. And “Frozen,” still in the top 10 after 17 weeks, added another $2 million for a domestic total of $396 and a worldwide of $1.026 billion. Let it go.

The numbers.

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Posted at 10:03 AM on Mar 16, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Saturday March 15, 2014

Quote of the Day

“The influence of films upon manners and morals can hardly be overestimated. Clark Gable wore no undershirt in 'It Happened One Night' and put a crimp in the undershirt industry. Hat manufacturers were irritated if a leading player wore no hat. Lobbyists were constantly at work in Hollywood attempting to get stars, male and female, to smoke; sometimes to get men to smoke cigars instead of cigarettes. I was offered a handsome gift if I could induce Ginger Rogers to smoke a cigar in a scene.”

-- Garson Kanin, “Hollywood.”

A lot to this subject. The influence.

Bogart smoking

The work of lobbyists? Or just selling what Hollywood (and you and I) wanted to buy?

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Posted at 05:39 PM on Mar 15, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday March 14, 2014

Movie Review: 300 (2007)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I’m sorry, but what kind of asshole likes a movie like “300”? What kind of asshole creates a movie like “300”? How weak do you have to feel inside to want to imagine a world like this? Or be in it.

Comic-book writer/illustrator Frank Miller creates worlds so cruel, so full of the awful dog-eat-dog laws of nature, that his protagonists are allowed to be both cruel and seething with moral righteousness. Which we, sitting in the dark, get to experience, too.

There’s an early scene in which a 7-year-old boy slams another 7-year-old boy to the ground. He pins his shoulders down with his knees while he wails at the other kid’s face with punches. The boy on the ground is helpless but the boy on top keeps punching until with one final punch, delivered in thrilling, cinematic slow-mo, the blood—as Monty Python said of Sam Peckinpah’s scenes—goes pssssss.

300The boy on top is our hero. He will grow up to be King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler). And what he’s doing here, pounding the other boy into submission, is, by the story’s logic, necessary. He’s learning to be a man.

“Fascistic” is an overused word but I’d use it here. There is, at the least, a whiff of eugenics in the film. Defective babies in Sparta are discarded, dashed against the rocks, but one, a grotesque hunchback, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan), survives, and grows, and tries to join Leonidas’ men, the 300, in their stand against the Persian army in 480 B.C. Unfortunately, Ephialtes can’t physically do what needs to be done to be a soldier. He would be a weak link among the 300. So he becomes a weak link outside the 300. He is tempted by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), the giant, androgynous King of Persia, with moaning women and soldier’s armor; and Ephialtes betrays Leonidas and the 300, leading to their downfall. In this manner, the cruelty of the world shows us we should be cruel first. The betrayal of Ephialtes, the hunchback who should’ve been killed at birth, reveals the wisdom of Sparta’s eugenics policy.

“Hitler” is an overused comparison, but .... OK, not Hitler. Nothing compares.

Except what was Hitler but a failed artist who created an ideal the opposite of himself?  A small, dark, weak man, he extolled the tall, blonde and strong: the ubermensch. And what is Frank Miller but a successful artist who has created an ideal the opposite of himself? A thin, frail, ugly man, he extolls the thick, powerful, and beautiful: the superman. Yes, I know: Most comic book creators are similar (the weak creating the strong), but with this difference: They tend to create worlds and situations in which mercy is a necessary quality. With great power comes great responsibility, etc. Frank Miller creates worlds and situations in which cruelty is a necessary quality. With great power comes the greater responsibility to crush the life out of people.

Some Spillane-ing to do
When we first see Leonidas as man and king, he’s roughhousing with his son and teaching him generic lessons about respect and honor, while his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey of “Game of Thrones”), watches with a benevolent smile. Then a messenger arrives from Persia, the strongest city-state in the world, asking for a token gesture that Sparta will submit to the will of Xerxes. Gathering all the wisdom and diplomacy he’s learned through all of his years of soldier training, Leonidas shouts “This! Is! Sparta!” before kicking the messenger (a Negro) and his men (wearing kufiyas) into a giant pit. Thus war is declared.

Except, whoops, Leonidas doesn’t have the authority to declare war. Democracy and all. He needs to ask the Ephors, leprosy-ridden, lust-ridden priests who live high atop a wind-swept mountain, to recommend to the Spartan council, vacillating old men, that war be declared. But the Ephors have been bought by Persian coin, as has Theron (Dominic West of “The Wire”), who runs the Spartan council. So what’s a soldier to do? Leonidas listens to his wife, who says, “Ask yourself, ‘What should a free man do?’” Then they have slow-motion sex. Then he gathers his 300 men for an epic battle at the Hot Gates.

Who’s memorable among the 300 besides Leonidas? There’s the Captain (Vincent Regan), who brings along his full-grown son, Astinos (Tom Wisdom), who is given shit by Stelios (Michael Fassbender). That’s about it. Oh, and Dilios (David Wenham). He’s our narrator. He will be the one-eyed survivor who tells the tale, sings the song, of the 300. And what distinguishes the only distinguishable characters from one other? Not much.

Has there been worse dialogue in a movie? At one point, the Queen gives us this Bush-era bumper-sticker slogan:

Freedom isn’t free at all. It comes with the highest of costs. The cost of blood.

After Astinos is beheaded in battle, we get this exchange:

Captain: Heart? I have filled my heart with hate!
Leonidas (nodding sagely): Good.

Meanwhile, Dilios goes for the noirish sentence fragments that Frank Miller loves:

There’s no room for softness. Not in Sparta. No place for weakness. Only the hard and strong may call themselves Spartans. Only the hard. Only the strong.

Even Mickey Spillane rolls his eyes.

So the Persians need to enter Sparta through a small strip of land, the Hot Gates, where their numbers are meaningless. That’s where Leonidas makes his stand. And he does, and they do, and the dead pile up. We get a lot of slow-mo battles, a lot of slow-mo blood splurging, a lot of hoo-ahs. The Persians send slaves, then their warrior class, then rhinos, elephants, and misshapen creatures. Nothing works. Until Ephialtes shows Xerxes the hidden path, and the 300 are traduced and outflanked. But their name lives on. Or at least their CGI-created abs.

The many against the few
Living on is a big part of it. Even as they battle, they fight over the meaning of the battle. They fight over the spin:

Xerxes: The world will never know you.
Leonidas: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant. That few stood against many. And before this battle was over, even a god-king can bleed.

Which he totally does.

So that’s the meaning of the 300: the few standing against the many. But what’s the meaning of “300”?

It’s the many (moronic moviegoers) standing against the few (anyone with a brain). Thing made a mint: $210 million in the U.S., $456 million worldwide. It remade the month of March as potential blockbuster territory. And it’s still popular! Its current IMDb rating is 7.8. Compare this with “West Side Story” at 7.7, “The Hurt Locker” at 7.6, “An American in Paris” at 7.3.

It helped make a B-picture star out of Butler, and launched Zack Snyder’s directorial career. Without it, would we have gotten two of the worst movies ever made—Miller’s “The Spirit” and Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”?

It’s huge in the gay community, too. Do the chest thumpers know that? It’s basically gay porn. It’s beautiful, nearly naked men in high-camp situations.

But its larger meaning is the stuff at the beginning of this review. It’s the fascistic tendencies, the love of blood and cruelty, the easy soldierly morality. “300” took the usual action-movie wish-fulfillment fantasies and turned them up to 11, as in 9/11, as buff British actors played the brave western heroes and haughty minority actors played the bribing, thieving, butchering Ay-rabs. Sure, the 300 lost. But their sacrifice spurred the reluctant majority to final victory. In this regard, it’s like “The Alamo,” but with John Wayne and Richard Widmark clad in undies and capes and shouting “Hoo-ah!” in the rain. It’s a great cultural artifact of a warped society: ours.

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Posted at 05:44 AM on Mar 14, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2000s
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Thursday March 13, 2014

Dueling Robert Duvall Headlines: Daily Beast vs. Breitbart

This is the headline as it appeared in The Daily Beast's Q&A with the acting legend, where it was original content:

Robert Duvall on His Storied Career, His New Movie, and Why He’s Ditching the GOP

Here's how the Brietbart site repurposed it:

Robert Duvall Blasts 'The Butler': 'Atrocities in South Committed By Democrats'

Pretty funny. It's a good Q&A, by the way, but if it were me doing the interview I would have followed up on Duvall's comments that made the Breitbart headline.

This is the graf in question:

Republicans in Hollywood seem to get a lot of flack and be a bit marginalized. Has it ever been tough, for you, to be a Republican in Hollywood?

Let me say it this way: my wife’s from Argentina, she’s been here for a while, and she’s very smart. She calls herself a “tree-hugging Republican,” but she might even vote Democrat next time because the Republican Party is a mess. I’ll probably vote Independent next time. I think it was Jack Kerouac who said something like, “Don’t run down my country. My people are immigrants, so I believe in this country with all its faults. To me, it’s a big country that’s made mistakes.” Some of the bleeding-heart left-wing, extreme left-wing, are actually different from liberals. That movie The Butler? It’s very inaccurate. JFK had one of the worst Civil Rights voting records. And the Rockefeller’s were much more liberal with the blacks. All the atrocities in the South were committed by the Democratic Party, but now, everything’s been turned around in a strange way. Some of these very conservative Republicans… I don’t know, man. I believe in a woman’s choice. I believe in certain things. I hear they booed Rick Perry last night on the Jimmy Kimmel show. But it’s a great country. We’ve done bad things. Slavery was terrible. One-third of all Freedmen in New Orleans fought for the South. I can’t figure that out. Those things aren’t told in the history books. There’ve been lots of contradictions and this and that. But I think the country’s okay, and hopefully it will survive.

My immediate thoughts for follow-ups:

  • Is he talking about JFK's voting record as a U.S. Senator? How is that relevant to “The Butler,” which focuses on The White House from Eisenhower to Reagan?
  • And surely Duvalls knows the significant progress the country made in civil rights during JFK's short term in office. And surely he knows the speech JFK gave in June 1963, during Birmingham, which finally owned up to federal responsibility on civil rights matters. These are not small things. It matters what the president says. 
  • And is he truly confused on Southern atrocities committed by Democrats? Again, doesn't he know that the Democratic party, from FDR to JFK, was a party of both northern progressives and southern Dixiecrats, and that most national Democrats were forced to walk the thin line between the two; and that JFK and LBJ were the national figures who finally made the irrevocable step onto the progressive side, turning the Dixiecrats into Republicans? “We've lost the South for a generation,” LBJ said after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. He was only wrong in underestimating the amount of time. It's been two-plus generations. And counting.

Anyone who blames “Democrats” for southern civil rights violations, without owning up to the fact that these folks make up the heart (or lack) of the modern GOP, is basically involved in a propaganda campaign. Right, Breitbart?

Duvall's right on one aspect of all this: “The Butler” was inaccurate. Worse, it wasn't very good.

The rest of Marlow Stern's Q&A, about Marlon Brando and Matthew McConaughey, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman, is a lot of fun to read.

Robert Duvall, Republican

Robert Duvall signaling for quiet; or maybe a do-over on the VP choice.

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Posted at 12:50 PM on Mar 13, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Tuesday March 11, 2014

Word of the Day: Agnotology

Agnotology (n.): The study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt.

I came across it in Michael Hiltzik's article about Robert Proctor, “Cultural production of ignorance provides rich field for study,” in The LA Times.

Proctor's field of research has taken him from the Nazis to Big Tobacco to Climate-change deniers to ACA opponents. I like this quote:

Early in his career ... he asked an advisor if Nazi science was an appropriate topic of research. “Of course,” he was told. “Nonsense is nonsense, but the history of nonsense is scholarship.” As part of his scholarship, Proctor says he “watches Fox News all the time.”

The big questions, for our Age of Misinformation, are at the end:

Given the torrent of misinformation washing about the public space and the multiplicity of pathways for its distribution, is there any hope for beating back the tide? Agnotologists are divided. “I don't see any easy out,” says UCLA's Wise. “All of the forces are on the side of undermining public trust in science.”

But Proctor has hope. “My whole career is devoted to pushing back,” he told me. “There is opportunity to expose these things through good journalism, good pedagogy, good scholarship. You need an educated populace.”

The effort needs to begin at a young age, he says. “You really need to be teaching third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-graders that some people lie. And why do they lie? Because some people are greedy.”

Bill O'Reilly

The History of Nonsense, Chapter 1,472.

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Posted at 05:04 AM on Mar 11, 2014 in category Word Study
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Monday March 10, 2014

Movie Review: Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

It’s an odd experience seeing a movie written by someone you know. It’s even odder when it’s “Mr. Peabody & Sherman,” the animated Dreamworks feature based upon the 1960s Jay Ward cartoon about a supersmart dog (Mr. Peabody) and his adopted boy (Sherman), who have adventures traveling through time.

Odder still? I see the connection between my old friend and the cartoon dog.

By his teenage years, Craig Wright was more or less orphaned, so he lived with the families of friends during high school. He’s an autodidact who barely touched college but is one of the most well-read people I know. (See here, here and here.) He’s a successful playwright (“Orange Flower Water,” “Grace,” and “The Pavilion,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize), a musician (The Tropicals), a TV writer (“Six Feet Under,” “Lost,” “Dirty Sexy Money”). He’s also a father. The great relationship of his life, at least during the time I knew him, was with his son.

Mr. Peabody & ShermanIn the film, Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) is a dog who never gets adopted because he’s interested in higher pursuits. Later in life, after much acclaim (Nobel prizes, etc.), he creates his own family by adopting a boy, Sherman (Max Charles), whom he raises. It’s the great relationship of his life.

There’s a nice scene near the end of the movie when Sherman, ridiculed by his peers as a dog since he’s being raised by one, finally owns up to it. He shouts, “I’m a dog, too!” Famous figures from history join in: George Washington, King Tut, Agamemnon. It’s a “Spartacus” moment, punctuated by Spartacus himself, who adds, enthusiastically but unhelpfully, “I’m Spartacus!”

But this is what I was thinking throughout the movie: Craig, you’re a dog, too.

The intellectual as hero
The Jay Ward cartoons of the 1960s—“Rocky and Bullwinkle,” “Dudley Do-Right,” et al.—were smarter and more pun-filled than their contemporaries, and you can say the same about this adaptation of “Mr. Peabody.” Its time-travel framework gives its creators an opportunity for a history lesson—albeit within the typical movie roller-coaster ride—and Craig and director Rob Minkoff don’t waste it.

We go to 1789 and the French Revolution, 1332 B.C. and King Tut, 1508 and the Italian Renaissance. We travel all the way back to the battle of Troy. We find out the reason Mona Lisa smiles, how Van Gogh came up with “Starry Night,” and why Marie Antoinette says “Let them eat cake.” It’s not really sugar-coated history, either. We get very specific instructions on mummification, for example. One of my favorite moments is Sherman’s first day of school when the teacher explains who George Washington was and what he chopped down, and Sherman, ever enthusiastic, pipes up that the cherry-tree story is apocryphal, created by subsequent generations to teach children a reductive lesson about telling the truth. Sherman actually says “apocryphal.” In a kid’s movie. I love that.

Pop culture tends to malign intellectuals but Mr. Peabody remains a hero here, while intellectual pursuits remain something worth doing and history something worth knowing. Yes, we get a mix of high and low culture, but even when it’s funny it’s generally smart—as when George Washington, back in his own time, impresses the ladies with his face on the $1 bill ... until Ben Franklin shows up with a $100.

We get great groanworthy puns (valedogtorian; queen of denial; and when Mr. Peabody suggests Mr. Antoinette should have delivered an edict to the poor, he adds, “But you can’t have your cake and edict, too”). We also get laugh-out loud moments, as when Peabody forbids Sherman, safely ensconced in Agamemnon’s huge arms, from fighting in the Trojan War. Sherman, p.o.’ed, is communicating through Agamemnon, so when Peabody reminds Sherman he’s a boy, just seven years old, Sherman whispers in Agamemnon’s ear, who announces, in a boyish whine, “... and a half!”

Voicework helps. Among the cameos: Patrick Warburton as Agamemnon, Stanley Tucci as Leonardo da Vinci, and Mel Brooks as Albert Einstein, who is admonished on the streets of New York, “Hey Einstein, look where you’re going!” and responds, a la Ratso Rizzo, “I’m walkin’ here!”

From Intolerance to tolerance
The story begins with a silent-movie trope. At school, Sherman is bullied by mean-girl Penny (Ariel Winter), and winds up biting her arm, so the moral authorities, in the person of Ms. Grunion (Allison Janney), threaten to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody. At the same time, Peabody arranges a dinner/détente with Penny’s parents (Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann), at which Penny convinces Sherman to use Mr. Peabody’s time-travel machine, the WABAC, and ... yadda yadda. Generally, Penny gets in trouble and they pull her out of it. A minor subplot involves Penny pushing Sherman to do the grown-up things Peabody forbids—such as steering Da Vinci’s flying machine—skills that will come in handy in the final act.

The ending is sweet.

As in the beginning, Peabody drives Sherman to school on his scooter. As in the beginning, they exchange good-byes, but reversed: each says what the other said earlier. Then Peabody, who’s been narrating at various points, turns to the camera and gives us the final pun: “No doubt about it,” he says, “every dog should have a boy.”

Wait. Every dog should have a boy? Rather than “its day”? That’s not much of a pun.

And it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to be advice to all of us in the audience. From one dog to another.

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Posted at 06:25 AM on Mar 10, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday March 09, 2014

Consider Yourself ... Well-Reviewed!

Jordan Muschler as the Artful Dodger

Jordan Muschler (front) as the Artful Dodger, with Justin Dekker as Fagain, in the Prior Lake Players' production of “Oliver!”

My nephew Jordan Muschler, a one-time reviewer on this site, has burst onto the stage yet again. Last October he played Gavrouche in the Bloomington Civic Theater's production of “Les Misérables.” Now he's the Artful Dodger in the Prior Lake Players' production of “Oliver!” It's actually a family affair. My nephew Ryan and brother Eric are in the production as well.

A review recently went up at The Prior Lake Monitor site, including this:

Jordan Muschler did a superb job playing the part of the Artful Dodger and had the cockney accent down perfectly.

Thank god. The rest of us in the family are a bit Seinfeldy (“Not bloodly likeLEE!”) in that regard.

Performances of “Oliver!” run through March 16.

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Posted at 12:01 PM on Mar 09, 2014 in category Jordy's Reviews
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Secrets to Their Success: Tactical Self-Delusion

I'm reading Garson Kanin's memoir, “Hollywood,” which is fast becoming one of my favorite insider memoirs of the movie business, and the first chapter is all about how Kanin came west in the late 1930s at the behest of producer Samuel Goldwyn, and how Kanin kept pushing to become a director even though Goldwyn didn't want him to become one. It became a big battle between the two. It raged. Everything about Goldwyn raged. He was a major asshole but with personality.

Eventually Kanin freed himself from Goldwyn's contract and his clutches to direct “A Man to Remember,” a B picture for RKO that did well at the box office. Shortly thereafter, Kanin ran into Goldwyn at a party, and the great man was enthusiastic. He called him a double-crossing little SOB, but then asked, quietly and sincerely, “Why didn't you ever tell me you wanted to be a director?” It's a laugh-out-loud moment.

Later, Kanin has a conversation with director William Wyler about it. “How do you explain it?” Kanin asked. Wyler replied:

Well, I’ll tell you. He believes with all his heart that you spent a year at his studio and never mentioned the subject of directing. He believes it because he has to. He’s convinced himself that’s the truth, because—don’t you see?—if he admits to anybody or to himself that there you were, under contract to him, begging him every minute for a chance to direct, with him turning you down, then you go out and become a successful director for another studio, he’s made a blunder. He’s used bad judgment, so rather than admit this, he convinces himself you never mentioned it. That's his mentality. I think it may be one of the main reasons for his success. To himself, he's never wrong.

See also: Donald Rumsfeld; Dick Cheney.

I did a few of these “How to Get Ahead” posts in the past, but let them lapse. No more. They're a good antidote to the All-American, FOX-News notion that if you just work hard enough you'll be a millionaire; and that if you're not a millionaire you just didn't work hard enough.

Other paths to success?

Samuel Goldwyn

Goldwyn: never wrong.

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Posted at 07:04 AM on Mar 09, 2014 in category How to Get Ahead
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Saturday March 08, 2014

The Dumbest Thing Said at CPAC?

Breitbart headline: FRED THOMPSON: CONSERVATIVE FILMS NOT MADE BECAUSE OF HOLLYWOOD 'COCKTAIL CURRENCY'

Repsonse: Right. If only Hollywood made movies starring good guys who use guns to save the world from usually nonwhite bad guys. But that'll never happen.

On second thought: That's not nearly the dumbest thing said at CPAC. Dinesh D'Souza spoke, after all.

Gerard Butler, Olympus Has Fallen

Maybe someday we'll be able to see scenes like this on our movie screens. But liberal Hollywood keeps getting in the way.

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Posted at 09:51 AM on Mar 08, 2014 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Breitbart's 2014 Box Office Predictions Obvious, Lack Context

Hunger Games mockingjay dress

Bretibart says Katniss will rise highest two years in a row. Has that ever happened?

The Breitbart site has given us its 2014 box-office predictions two months into 2014, but what the hell. The first two months are always throat clearing for Hollywood anyway.

Among its predictions?

  1. “Mark Wahlberg will become the industry's next big action star.”
  2. “With films 300: Rise of an Empire, Maleficent, Divergent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Dolphin Tale 2 set to open well, a lot of new talent will be joining current new talent heavyweight Jennifer Lawrence.”
  3. “Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part One Will Be Year's Biggest Grosser.”

Wow, going out on a limb, BB. My responses:

  1. Wasn't he 10 years ago?
  2. New talent? You mean Shailene Woodley from “The Descendants”? Or maybe Sir Ian McKellan from “X-Men”? It would be nice if they named names, as their political ancestors did.
  3. The sequel to the biggest movie of 2013 will be the biggest movie of 2014? Shocker!

Actually, wait. Maybe that last one is a shocker. Has the same franchise movie ever been the year's biggest movie in back-to-back years?

Here's a list of sequels that were the biggest domestic box-office hits of the year, followed by time removed from predecessors:

  • 1980: “The Empire Strikes Back” (Three years after “Star Wars” was 1977's biggest movie)
  • 1983: “Return of the Jedi” (Three years after “Empire” was 1980's biggest movie)
  • 1991: “Terminator 2” (Seven years after the first movie was the 21st-biggest-hit of 1984)
  • 1999: “The Phantom Menace” (16 years after “Jedi” was 1983's biggest movie)
  • 2003: “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King” (One year after “Two Towers” was the second-biggest movie of 2002)
  • 2004: “Shrek 2” (Three years after “Shrek” was the third-biggest grosser of 2001)
  • 2005: “Revenge of the Sith” (Three years after “Clones” was the third-biggest movie of 2002)
  • 2006: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest” (Three years after the first “Pirates” was the third-biggest movie of 2003)
  • 2007: “Spider-Man 3” (Three years after “Spider-Man 2” was the second-biggest grosser of 2004)
  • 2008: “The Dark Knight” (Three years after “Batman Begins” was the eighth-biggest hit of 2005)
  • 2010: “Toy Story 3” (Eleven years after “Toy Story 2” was the third-biggest hit of 1999)
  • 2011: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” (One year after “HPATDH Part 1” was the fifth-biggest grosser of 2010)
  • 2013: “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (One year after “The Hunger Games” was the third-biggest hit of 2012)

Two things you notice about the above: 1) Sequels used to be spaced three years apart and now come more quickly, thanks to CGI; and 2) we're loving our sequels more and more. Or maybe Hollywood's just better at making them. For two decades, in the 1980s and '90s, only four sequels were the year's biggest hit: three “Star Wars” movies and “T2.” But in the last decade? A sequel has been the year's biggest hit every year since 2003 with the exception of 2009 (“Avatar”) and 2012 (“The Avengers”); and you can make an argument for the latter as a sequel.

Anyway, the larger point stands: The Breitbart site seems to be predicting the obvious but is actually predicting something that's never happened. They should have mentioned that in their post.

Except ...

The above stats are taken from Box Office Mojo, which tracks back only to 1980. Numbers before then are an iffy territory (if they're not now). But if you do go back further, as I did with “The Hollywood Reporter of Box Office Hits,” you'll find one sequel that was the No. 1 box office hit of the year one year removed from its original. “The Bells of St. Mary's,” with Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley, was the No. 1 movie of 1945 the year after “Going My Way,” with Bing Crosby as Father Chuck O'Malley, was the No. 1 movie of 1944.

So it has been done. Once. Seventy years ago.

Breitbart site? It's called research.

Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley

Katniss is trying to do what only this man has ever done. But can she sing?

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Posted at 09:00 AM on Mar 08, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Friday March 07, 2014

Trailer of the Day: The Last of the Unjust

I could do without the American trailer narration. It's just wrong for this documentary.

Anthony Lane's review here.

Anyone know when it might play Seattle?

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Posted at 03:56 PM on Mar 07, 2014 in category Trailers
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Help Me Copy Curmudgeon, You Are My Only Hope

I'm reading “Hollywood” by Garson Kanin on my Kindle and came across this spelling error from amazon.com. It's on the Kindle, too, but not in the book. ATTN: Copy Curmudgeon. Not to mention Mr. B:

Garson Karin, Hollywood, amazon.com

“Hollywood” is a lot of fun, by the way. Great stories so far on Samuel Goldwyn. He's a major asshole but he's got personality, and, as we've learned, personality goes a long way.

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Posted at 07:45 AM on Mar 07, 2014 in category Books
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Thursday March 06, 2014

When Modern Celebrity Began

“It seems so strange that so many people would gather at the train to welcome one they had never seen, only in pictures.”

-- Florence Lawrence, “The Biograph Girl,” and the first designated movie star, after she was mobbed by fans at the St. Louis railroad station in March 1910, as reported in Ty Burr's “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” pg. 17. Burr adds: “No one understood what had just happened, least of all the woman at the center of the rapture.” You could say our modern world, with its heavy focus on fame and celebrity, began here.

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Posted at 07:04 AM on Mar 06, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Wednesday March 05, 2014

In Talking Oscars, Breitbart's Big Hollywood Makes Fox News Seem Fair and Balanced

Michelle Obama at 2013 Oscars

Big Hollywood attributes the Oscar ratings boost to the lack of politics at the event during the Obama years. (Above: First Lady Michelle Obama announces the best picture winner, for “Argo,” in 2013.)

How bad is Breitbart's Big Hollywood site? It makes Fox News look fair and balanced in comparison.

Big Hollywood recently posted an article on the bounce-back ratings for the Academy Awards Sunday night (43 million vs. 32 million in 2008) and attributes it solely to the lack of “boorish, smug, divisive political behavior” from the Hollywood elites during the Obama years. No Michael Moore speeches, no anti-Iraq war speeches, etc. So viewers are tuning in again. “Who would have ever guessed?” John Nolte asks smugly, if not to say divisively, at the end.

The problem? 2008 was also the last year there were five best picture nominees—nominees, by the way, that had long stopped being among the top box-office hits of the year. (See this chart.) That was the whole point of expanding the nominee pool: to get bigger box-office hits among the mix, and thus, hopefully, goose the TV ratings. Do politics, or apolitics, have something to do with the recent ratings boost? Who knows? But for Nolte not to mention the expansion of best picture nominees verges on duplicitous.

The Fox News site, on the other hand, while it gives us a boorish, divisive headline about another Oscar matter (Academy, Hollywood's failure to recognize 'Lone Survivor' a travesty”), attempts some fair and balanced reporting from James Jay Carafano.

His piece is about how “Lone Survivor,” the Mark Wahlberg/Afghanistan/anti-My Lai picture, garnered no nominations despite some critical and box-office acclaim. Certain right-wing pundits (Sean Hannity) have used this as an example, according to Carafano, of “how liberal Hollywood really hates the military.” Carafano isn't convinced. He brings up “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Hurt Locker,” and echoes the shrug of The National Review's Jonah Goldberg over the controversy.

True, Carafano writes, in over-the-top fashion:

In the annals of American war films, the technical accuracy and realism of this film is unprecedented. In this regard, it is truly a historic cinematic achievement. For Hollywood, not to salute that is a travesty.

But he adds:

That said, it’s simply unfair to label Tinsel Town as a bunch of pathetic pacifists.

(Of course, that's almost like push-journalisim, isn't it? The way that push-polling is about disseminating false facts rather than extracting true information, this could be the same from the journalism side: pretending to be vaguely objective while pushing propaganda points.)

Carafano also gets his numbers wrong.

In the first graf, he compares “Survivor” to “Waterworld,” the 1995 Kevin Costner flick that actually garnered an Oscar nomination (sound editing) even though “Lone Survivor” has none, and even though the Wahlberg flick “also crushed it in ticket sales.”

First, you can create the world's greatest film festival from the movies that never received an Oscar nomination—from 1957 alone: “A Face in the Crowd,” “Paths of Glory” and “Sweet Smell of Success”—so I'd leave that one alone. Second, the numbers are fudged. Yes, “Survivor”'s domestic box office is bigger than “Waterworld” ($123.5 million to $88 million), but when you adjust for inflation “Survivor” is the same while “Waterworld” is on top with $169 million. And that doesn't even take into account international box office, where “Waterworld” grossed $175 million in 1995 (unadjusted) and “Survivor” grossed exactly zero dollars this past year, because it hasn't been released overseas. Will it ever? Who knows? Maybe Universal feels it won't play in Europe. Or Asia. Or anywhere but here. There's a story there.

In the end, the handwringing over “Lone Survivor”'s zero noms is overdone. It's an OK movie but hardly great. For all of these reasons.

Lone Survivor

“Wait, we didn't make as much as 'Waterworld'?”

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Posted at 08:19 AM on Mar 05, 2014 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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Tuesday March 04, 2014

Yankees Suck Reason #38: Keeping Vic Power in the Minors

Vic Power

Vic Power had his best years with the Athletics in 1955, when he hit .319 and slugged .505, with 34 doubles, 10 triples and 19 homers.

John Rosengren, who has written two previous books on baseball, has now published a third: “The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball's Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption.” It's worth checking out. (Disclosure: Rosengren's a friend.)

Most baseball fans know about the incident. In the midst of a tight pennant race in August 1965, Juan Marichal, a future Hall of Fame pitcher, who was at the plate, took a baseball bat to the head of catcher John Roseboro. Rosengren's book is the story behind those 10 seconds of infamy.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, may be the sections on the history of dark-skinned Latinos integrating the Majors after Jackie. It includes yet another stellar moment in Yankees history:

Vic Power (né Victor Pellot Pove), a dark-skinned infielder from Puerto Rico, had married a light-skinned Hispanic woman, but when he drove her around Kansas City—where he played for the Athletics in 1955—police regularly stopped him to question him about the white woman in the passenger seat. Another time, after Power bought a Coke at a gas station in Florida, the attendant boarded the team bus and demanded that Power return the bottle. Power complied with some choice words. A patrol car soon pulled over the bus, and the officer arrested Power for profanity. Power’s teammates posted bail of $500 but warned him not to go back for the trial. “What kind of country is this?” Power asked.

America’s team gave him his answer. Power batted .330 and drove in 109 runs for the New York Yankees’ AAA team in 1952, but the parent club did not promote him. The next year, Power won the American Association batting title with his .349 average but still didn’t get called up. Knowing that Power’s stylish play and his relationship with a white woman (whom he would soon marry) might ruffle the team’s staid fan base, Yankees general manager George Weiss said Power wasn’t the “right kind” of black man to integrate the Yankees. The team’s traveling secretary Bill McCorry was more blunt: “No nigger will have a berth on any train I’m running.” Yankee president Dan Topping tried to justify the team’s decision by labeling Power a “poor fielder.”

Once Power finally did get a crack at the big leagues after the Yankees traded him to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1954, the infielder went on to win seven Gold Gloves ...

For the record, the Yankees were the unlucky 13th of the original 16 teams to integrate (in 1955 with Elston Howard), behind only the Phillies ('57), Tigers ('58) and Red Sox ('59), and despite the other New York teams being the first (Dodgers in '47) and fourth (Giants in '49) to move the country, the culture, and the world forward.

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Posted at 07:37 AM on Mar 04, 2014 in category Yankees Suck
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Monday March 03, 2014

Nikki Finke on What We'll Be Watching in Five Years

“It will all blur, now that you’ve got Netflix and Amazon and everything. I think a lot of it is going to blur. It used to be you only wanted to be in a movie. If you couldn’t be in a movie you wanted to be in a network series. If you couldn’t be in a network series, then maybe HBO. Because remember, you’re not getting paid as much for all these things. And then cable.  In five years, you’re not even going to be aware of where the hell you’re watching, if it’s broadcast, if it’s cable, if it’s Netflix. TV is getting so smart right now and the platforms on your phone and your iPad and everything, you’re just watching. You’re not even going to be aware what it is, you’re just watching.”

-- Nikki Finke, in “Nikki Finke: The Kindle Singles Interview” by David Blum. I read it in about an hour. Pretty interesting. She's particularly good on the studios and studio chiefs, and who greenlit what, and who was a bastard to whom, all of which I know almost nothing about. I particularly like the last line of the quote above. Reminds me of Chance the Gardener.

Kevin Spacey, House of Cards

“Democracy is so overrated.”

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Posted at 07:32 PM on Mar 03, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Sunday March 02, 2014

SLIDESHOW: My Oscar Picks


  • SLIDESHOW: This is who I want to win, not who I think will win. I have no inside information, beingin Seattle, but I'll bring up some of the favorites. I'll also mention who's missing from among the nominees, if anyone. Overall, I have to admit, it's been a good year for Hollywood movies and the Academy did a good job picking its nominees. Its big blind spot was not giving any love to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but then, as my friend Jim Walsh writes, that's the nature of Llewyn Davis. Nothing would be more incongruous than Llewyn Davis winning anything. If you want him during awards time, he'll be in the back alley getting his ass kicked. But onward.




  • BEST ORIGINAL SONG: “HAPPY”: What's missing, of course, is any song from “Inside Llewyn Davis,” or at least the original songs (“Please, Mr. Kennedy,” etc.), but even if that were nominated I'd probably still go with this songand not just because Patricia's obsessed with it. It's because Pharrell's voice is great, the song grooves, and it does what it sets out to do. It makes us happy.

  • BEST VISUAL EFFECTS: GRAVITY“: Sure, great effects and whiz-bang in ”Star Trek Into Darkness“ ”The Hobbit 2,“ and ”Iron Man 3.“ But c'mon. This movie was an experience. It was a spectacle. It pushed the bounds. It went where no film had gone before.

  • BEST FILM EDITING: ”AMERICAN HUSTLE“: How do you choose this category unless you know what the editor was working with? But I'd go ”Hustle“ based on how quickly it moved through the movie's many different storylines in a way that felt left almost nothing extraneous on the screen. It's a quick, fun, fat-free movie. The only extra weight was what Christian Bale put on.

  • BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: BRUNO DELBONNEL, ”INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS“: I wouldn't be surprised if the black-and-white movie wins (”Nebraska“) but ”Llewyn Davis“ felt black and white to me. This is Delbonnel's fourth nomination, after ”Amélie, “Un long dimanche de fiançailles,” and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Roger Deakins, who often photographs the Coens' movies, is also up, for “Prisoners.” It's his 11th nomination with no wins. Could be interesting. Would love to see someone from this movie up there.

  • BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: “THE GREAT BEAUTY”: It won the Globe and the BAFTA, and its strongest competition isn't here: “The Past,” from Iran, and “Blue is the Warmest Color” from France. Plus it was No. 3 in my top movies of 2013. Although does that count against it ulimtately? Either way, Jep (above) gave us the best Oscar-night advice: “We're all on the brink of despiar. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don’t you agree?”

  • BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: “THE ACT OF KILLING”: Every year this category gets tougher. Think of all the great 2013 docs that didn't even get nominated. But “Killing” is in a league of its own. It's horrifying, bizarre but ultimately redemptive. If we think what we see in the first 9/10 can be redeemed.

  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: JENNIFER LAWRENCE, “AMERICAN HUSTLE”: There's been pushback lately that Lawrence's is a showy performance. Maybe, but it's my kind of showy performance. But it appears Lupita Nyong'o will win for “Slave.” If enough members of the Academy can bother to see it. 

  • BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: MICHAEL FASSBENDER, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”: I'd be happy with Jared Leto, who seems a lock. But Fassbender's was one of the most amazing performances of the year. Not because, as a slaveowner, he could act cruel but because he could also act righteous. There's not a trace of guilt in him. The opposite. Look how wrongedhe felt in the end.

  • BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: SPIKE JONZE, “HER”: This category is usually stacked but not this year. To be honest, any of these could win and I'd just shrug. The best movie of the bunch is “American Hustle” but I heard a lot of that was improvised. So I'd go Jonze.

  • BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: STEVE COOGAN, JEFF POPE, “PHILOMENA”: I still think this is a very underrated movie. There's a purity, a cleanness to it. I'd be happy with either “12 Years” or “Wolf,” too. What would make me most unhappy? “Before Midnight,” one of the most overrated movies I've seen in years. 

  • BEST ACTOR: LEONARDO DICAPRIO, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”: This is the most stacked category we've got. It's so stacked that performances that might normally win, such as Robert Redford in “All Is Lost,” Tom Hanks in “Captain Phillips,” and Oscar Isaac in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” weren't even nominated. It's McConaughey's to lose, of course, and I'll cheer along with everyone else for the great year he had, including “Mud,” “Wolf” and HBO's “True Detective”; but Leo took it to another level here. It’s like he was channeling Jack Nicholson at his outré best. He was both contained and over-the-top. It was riveting.

  • BEST ACTRESS: JUDI DENCH, “PHILOMENA”: Again, why was there no buzz for this performance? Cate Blanchett was amazing in “Blue Jasmine,” and she'll deserve it, but Dench is so good she almost undercuts her film. We get several scenes from the 1950s to demonstrate what Philomena Lee lost, but these, to me, are almost superfluous. We know what Philomena Lee lost. You just need to watch Judi Dench act.

  • BEST DIRECTOR: MARTIN SCORSESE, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”: I know, he's got no shot. But the movies Marty will be remembered for are “Mean Streets” (no nomination), “Taxi Driver” (ditto), “Raging Bull (nominated, lost to Redford), ”Goodfellas“ (nominated, lost to Costner), and this. So who gets the honor instead? I'll take McQueen, even though, in some sense, ”12 Years“ is his least powerful movie. I'll take Cuaron for pushing the boundaries of space on film. But this is who I want. And finally ...

  • BEST PICTURE: ”THE WOLF OF WALL STREET“: It’s about the haves and have nots; about how to be a have and not fall back into have-not territory. Jordan Belfort keeps bringing up McDonald’s with his brokers in the wolf pit. He keeps bringing up dingy cars and plain wives and the energy-draining 9-to-5 existence: commuting between two places that don’t really appreciate what you do. The schnook life. Our life. And welcome to it. ”American Hustle“ might win, along with either ”12 Years“ or ”Gravity," but this movie is about the true American hustle.

  • EXIT MUSIC (FOR A SLIDESHOW): Gosh, where to start? I'd like to thank Patricia for always being there, and for taking like two dozen photos of me before we got a decent one. I'd like to thank the Academy for starting up to stave off unionization. I'd like to thank the talented people who made this year's movies, particularly Martin Scorsese, and all the people who came to my Oscar party. But mostly I'd like to thank Llewyn Davis. For reminding me of me. This one's for you, dude!
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Posted at 02:11 PM on Mar 02, 2014 in category Movies - The Oscars
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For Red Carpet Watchers: That's a Bowling Alley Behind Angelina Jolie

“On the way back to our condo rental, we stopped at the Dolby Theatre, home to the Academy Awards. The theater is squeezed into a shopping mall on busy Hollywood Boulevard that has a Gap store, food court and bowling alley.

”'I don’t remember the red carpet taking place outside a mall,' I commented to the guide. Everything, he explained, is cloaked. Store signs are covered for the Oscars telecast.“

-- from my sister's Star-Tribune piece, ”In Los Angeles, studio tours are the real stars," about going on studio tours with the family earlier this year in Hollywood.

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Posted at 09:25 AM on Mar 02, 2014 in category Movies - The Oscars
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Saturday March 01, 2014

Quote of the Day

“'Fox approached news differently,' a staffer who had done time at other networks said. 'It wasn’t actual journalism where you say, “Let’s go see what’s going on.” At Fox, it’s “This is what we’re doing, so go do it.”'”

-- from Gabriel Sherman's “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Bombastic, Brilliant Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country.”

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Posted at 02:33 PM on Mar 01, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Breitbart Site Says ‘Liberal Hollywood Movies’ (I.e., Men w/Guns) Do Poorly at Box Office

The Lego Movie

“Wait, I thought FOX Business condemned us as anti-capitalist. So why doesn't the Breitbart site mention us in their anti-liberal rant?”
“Because we've already grossed $200 million. And because I'm Batman.”

 

How awful it must be to see the world this way. To strain the vastness of existence through the puniness of your political ideology.

In case you don’t know—and most don’t and don’t care and I don’t blame them—“Big Hollywood” is a conservative website that assures its few readers they’re right and liberal Hollywood is wrong. And that liberal Hollywood is liberal. And not popular. Totally.

Do the Breitbart writers know what they write is bullshit? They must. I don’t think you can cherrypick your facts in this manner without realizing what you’re doing.

Their latest piece is below. The annotations in bold are mine.

**

Liberal Hollywood Movies Drag Down 2014's Box Office Receipts

It's no secret that liberal Hollywood producers are under extra scrutiny these days. It’s a secret to me. Who’s scrutinizing them? Besides you sad folks.

Last year saw huge box office disappointments in the form of White House Down, After Earth, The Fifth Estate and Elysium. There were bigger box-office disappointments last year: “The Lone Ranger,” “Oblivion,” “Free Bird,” “A Good Day to Die Hard.” Why focus on “White House Down,” et al.? Because they’re “liberal”? In that three-quarters of them are about men with guns?

It got so bad in 2013 that a virtual shouting match ensued between actor George Clooney and hedge fund kingpin Daniel Loeb. Basically, what it boils down to, is Hollywood elites enjoy making liberal message films that cater to their every desire—however—those who fund the films are tired of losing money. It’s hard to parse the bullshit out of this last sentence. The conflict is generally between the artist, who wants to create the new and the relevant, and the businessman, who wants to recreate the successful. The businessman usually wins. Which is why we live in a sequel society.

So far, 2014 isn't helping the progressive cause's wallet, either. Films like Lone Survivor (pro-military) are powering huge box office profits. “Lone Survivor,” with which I had issues more related to storytelling than politics, has done well at the box office: $122 million, 25th-best for 2013. But the most successful film of 2013 was “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” at $423 million domestic and $863 worldwide. Question: Are there liberal values in “The Hunger Games”? It’s got a strong female lead and condemns economic inequality. You could argue it’s a movie for the 99%. If, that is, you want to be as reductive as the Breitbart site. 

Overseas, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug and Frozen are on the verge of grossing $900 to one billion dollars respectively. Both are driven heavily by conservative and traditional narratives. Um... This is about the dumbest thing I’ve ever read.

This isn't new. I wrote on how this was occurring in last year's holiday/winter frame as well. These successes are in direct contrast to recent notable box office misfires, which go as follows:

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

It's no secret that many in Hollywood want to make Christians the next “go to” bad guy in films. The filmmakers thought they had a winner in using this, while also rebooting a previously successful franchise. Instead, they quickly disappointed with a terrible January opening. In the post-mortem, it turns out younger audiences had tuned out the film with only older audiences even bothering to show up. This is especially sad when you consider the Tom Clancy brand is huge in video game arenas (an area where sales are dominated heavily by the younger market) but they won't show up when you offer them a lame religious villain meant to destroy geo-politics. YawnThe hell? I saw this movie last week. Who’s the Christian villain you’re talking about? Kenneth Branagh? He’s Russian. Is he Christian? And even if he is, how does that relate to the film’s box office success or failure? What are you basing any of this on?

The Monuments Men

In truth, this film was doomed the moment Lone Survivor became a breakout hit. Long paraded with the likes of Green Zone, Lions For Lambs, Brothers, and such, Survivor liberated audiences from these typical “anti-war” narratives where military soldiers were often the villains. You can be pro-military and anti-war. You can also be pro-war and anti-military—just look at Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Plus the hero of “Green Zone” was a soldier. I could go on, but the main lesson, an old one, is that most moviegoers want escapism from their movies, and “Green Zone” and “Lions For Lambs” didn’t deliver escapism. They also weren’t very good movies.

All of these films resulted in box office disasters. Instead, Survivor showed soldiers performing heroically under duty, and audiences couldn't get enough. This meant going to the theater to high profile progressives like George Clooney/Matt Damon in their version of a “war movie” just wasn't interesting anymore. Despite the high profile cast (which is debatable), the film struggled to make a high opening and was crushed by The Lego Movie of all things. Where to start with this last bit? How about “The Lego Movie”? I believe some FOX News analysts see it s another liberal anti-business message out of Hollywood. I believe they’ve said that. It’s also the early hit of the year: $200 million and counting. So why doesn’t Breitbart mention that? Because it doesn’t fit into its formula that liberal Hollywood movies kill box office.  But it is true that “Monuments Men” hasn’t done well at the box office. It’s a serious film, about art, and getting Americans to see a serious film about art is tougher than getting them away from the television set on Super Bowl Sunday. It's also not very good. Sadly.

Film will be lucky to even make “half” of Lone Survivor's final box office tally, a film that did so without the high profile cast. Mark Wahlberg isn’t high-profile? Tell him that.

RoboCop

Liberal film critics have been trying for years to label the first RoboCop (which I love) as some giant “anti-Reagan” opus complete with anti-capitalistic themes. This is laughable when you see the film. Even director Paul Verhoeven has said the main lead is more a “Christ-like figure” who's resurrected to save a failing city and hold firm to his own humanity (despite being turned into a powerful machine).Well have no fear liberal entities, you got to remake RoboCop this year and pack it with your liberal talking points. The result was a box office opening that made even sci-fi bomb John Carter chuckle. Taking aim at the likes of Fox News and such, audiences were left wanting to watch the original RoboCop quickly, if only just to get the bad taste out of their mouths. The original “Robocop,” with its corporate villains partnering with drug dealers, wasn’t liberal, but the new one is? *Sigh*

Look at the three movies the Breitbart site condemns as liberal. What do they have in common? They're about men with guns: one’s a cop, one’s CIA, the others are WWII-era soldiers. “Monuments Men” honors our WWII veterans. If you insist on calling that liberal, fine, but please remember that and refrain from mentioning any of it at the next GOP convention.

RELATED POSTS:

The stars of Monuments Men

Good new, liberals. We get WWII vets now.

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Posted at 10:44 AM on Mar 01, 2014 in category What Liberal Hollywood?
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